The lads entered the Great Hall and were greeted immediately by the din of thousands of eager young pupils—some excited to see old friends after a long summer, others to be welcomed to the historic school of witchcraft and wizardry for the first time. At the teachers’ table, adults looked on disapprovingly as dozens of students still ambled about the hall unseated, either because they couldn’t decide where they wanted to sit, or because they still had so many people to mingle with before they could get settled. For Nigel and company, the task of finding a seat was never a very difficult one; lacking abundant social capital, they always sat anywhere at Ravenclaw table that could fit the three (now four) of them.
“Ahhhh,” Xenophilius sighed in relief upon taking his seat. “When shall this feast begin, eh?”
“Oh, you know the rules, Xen,” said Nigel, “we always have to wait for these bloody children to get sorted before we can have our meal. You may be asking yourself, Teddy, ‘why oh why would us youths, after just having endured a long train ride, be then subjected to a long and boring ceremony without first having our dinner?’ Well, I’ll tell you why: it’s old-school authoritarian discipline. You deprive people, make them suffer, and then you’ve got them under your thumb.” Coming into sobriety, Nigel was beginning to notice how famished all that hot-boxing on the train had made him. As a result, he was fast becoming irritable.
Dipesh, equally starved and grouchy, chose to distract himself by putting forward more queries for their strange American newcomer. “Teddy,” he began, “do you know what they’re going to do with you? Are you going to be sorted or are they just going to let you roam where you may?”
Teddy explained that although he was entering his fifth year of magical education, he would be sorted into a house just like the first-years. If he had come from a school that had mostly an identical system of organizing its students—as was the case with many schools in the British colonies—then they would have automatically put him into whatever house was most similar to the one from his other school. The sorting system in Texas, though, was just too different (the boys gathered from Teddy’s verbal cues that he was not in the mood to explain the particulars of their system), so he would have to be put under the hat to determine his proper place.
“Whoa now!” Nigel exclaimed, feeling epiphanous. “You’re gonna be a fifth year? Shit, man, that means you’ll be taking the O.W.L.s with us!”
Dipesh, thinking back to the conversation he had with Nigel in Albert’s Frozen Wonderland, made a face that said: “not this again!”
Teddy wagged a finger in Nigel’s direction, trying to remind himself of what these O.W.L.s were all about. “Yeah…I do remember them sending me some kinda letter about that. What’s that again? It’s a big exam of sorts, right?”
Dipesh tried to answer Teddy’s question before Nigel had the chance to, but he was steamrolled by the greater volume and ferocity of Nigel’s voice. The answer that Nigel provided was predictably longwinded and electrifyingly critical of the nation’s entire system of magical education. It would seem that Nigel’s multiple encounters with the mysterious Ministry men had not distracted him from his anxieties over the O.W.L.s and his dissatisfaction with the way he was being forcibly funneled into a singular career path very early on. In fact, far from seeing these problems as two discrete elements, Nigel’s preternaturally paranoid mind was rather easily able to fold the Ministry plot and the O.W.L.s dilemma into a unified narrative about total governmental control over the lives of its allegedly free citizens.
“She’s beautiful…” Xenophilius looked upward dreamily.
Nigel broke free from his chattering to focus on Xen’s musings, for no matter how obsessive he might have been about “the big questions,” he always made space in his mind for anything having to do with romance. “Who are you talking about?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“Her.” Xen bucked his head towards someone who was apparently floating above the heads of everyone in the Great Hall.
It dawned on the lads that Xenophilius had his eyes set on their house ghost, Helena Ravenclaw. Beautiful as her post-mortem projection may have been, Helena was also very much dead, and so the lads were rather puzzled by their friend’s infatuation with her (to this day, romantic relations between living humans and ghosts remains quite a taboo subject in the magical world).
“You’re sick in the head.” Dipesh shook his head grimly at Xen, whose eyes remained locked on the phantom woman. “Xen! She is a whole millennium your senior!”
Nigel broke out in laughter. “Listen to Dipesh, Xen! Look, I feel you, man. What you see before you is a stunning chick, but the reality is that at this point she’s nothing more than a pile of dust. I mean, just how would it work between the two of you?” (The reader can well imagine that with this last comment Nigel is considering all aspects of a romantic relationship.)
Xen’s eyes widened into attention, and he cocked his head sharply away from Helena to face Nigel. “Calm yourself, Nigel boy. You really think I would seriously consider amorous relations with a ghost?” He shook his blond hair out of his face and gazed once again at the ghost of Helena. “I’m merely letting my mind run wild with the fantasy of it.”
If this final remark was meant to put Dipesh’s and Nigel’s minds at ease, it certainly did not; but the boys froze in fear and let the matter drop when moody Helena caught them staring at her. If Xen wants to “fantasize” about what it would be like to fuck a ghost, Nigel thought, I guess that’s his business. His blood ran cold just thinking about it, and Helena’s menacing expression only discomfited him further.
“Let us now come to order!” Dumbledore’s voice boomed magically through the hall. At once, the entire student body was rendered silent—much to the relief of the other teachers, who had been waiting impatiently for the headmaster to quiet the mob. “Well, dear students, I hope that you all had a joyful and restful summer filled with…” (he drew his index finger and thumb to within an inch of each other like a chef describing the proper amount of salt to be added to a dish) “…just the right amount of frivolity.” The students laughed, excited as usual that this ancient and wise figure seemed to understand them like a peer. To their laughter, Albus Dumbledore gave a knowing smile. The other teachers were, as always, jealous of the soft power Dumbledore masterfully wielded over the students. After a brilliant opening, Dumbledore went on to discuss routine administrative concerns—remarks which were nothing out of the ordinary.
Nigel was sure to note that the headmaster made no mention of the Ministry officials—who were likely at this moment stalking the grounds of Hogwarts. Dumbledore has clearly been censored, Nigel thought. What could they be up to? Turning his attention further away from the headmaster’s speech, Nigel saw that the widely disdained caretaker, Argus Filch, had just slithered into the Great Hall. He was presently looking very conspiratorial indeed. One could imagine that he just finished conferring with likeminded reactionaries at the Ministry who shared in his obscene fantasies about chaining misbehaved students to the dungeon walls and flogging them mercilessly.
“Oh!” Dumbledore said. “There’s one more thing I must mention before we get to the sorting: We are delighted to welcome a special guest to our school this year!” (The Ministry of Magic? Nigel pondered sardonically.) “Students, please join me in offering a warm greeting to Theodore MacArthur, an exchange student from the United States! Mr. MacArthur, please stand up if you will.” Dumbledore’s eyes searched the Great Hall for signs of the boy from Texas. “Ah, there he is! Theodore’s family has special business to conduct here in our country, so for the time being he will be continuing his magical studies with us. I am sure that all of you will help him feel at home here, and that all of us will be enriched by this unique opportunity to engage in a little transatlantic exchange.” Nigel glanced at Harold just in time to see him roll his eyes at the prospect of intercultural mixing— “more leftwing rubbish,” he was probably thinking. Gesturing at Nigel, Dipesh, and Xen, Dumbledore said, “I see that some of you have already taken it upon yourselves to make Theodore feel welcome here.” Dumbledore’s eyes momentarily met Nigel’s. Imagine if you were at the Royal Albert Hall and Paul McCartney picked out your face in the crowd and gave you a little wink, then you might understand the rapture that Nigel felt in that moment when the legendary headmaster briefly noticed him.
At last, Albus Dumbledore finished his remarks, thus paving the way for the sorting to begin. Out came the brilliant and fierce Professor Minerva McGonagall, teacher of Transfiguration—currently acting as master of ceremonies—to set the old wrinkly hat on its throne: a simple wooden stool. Once put in its rightful place, the hat wriggled into life, its leathery wrinkles forming a hollow face. The Sorting Hat’s custom was to sing something for the students. This year, the hat’s song was rather unusual:
Well, I see you all looking upon me
Bored, perplexed, disturbed, confused faces in the throng
You wish to know the stuff that you are made of?
Come now, and I will tell you where you belong
There is the house of puffed-up knights
Who liken themselves to lions with mighty manes,
And go seeking combat even when a nonviolent approach will do
Yes, indeed, very hot blood runs through their veins
And what can be said about the house of Helga Hufflepuff?
Was there ever a witch who led a life more uninspiring?
I cannot find in the history books any fabulous tales involving her name
Please, let us move on, I find this house so tiring
For those whose mind overflows with ideas
Who constantly have their quill at the draw,
Yet never seem able to solve problems in the real world
I present to you that house of idle thinkers: Ravenclaw!
I save my strongest ire for the followers of Salazar Slytherin
If ever you were so desperate for power that you would betray a friend
Or so longing for fame and fortune that you would deceive your own kin
Then I shall throw you in the dungeon with the snakes and let that be the end!
Now, you are probably feeling a little glum
For none of your options sound terribly promising
But I would remind you that there is no meaning in the symbols on the house crests
And therefore, nothing that I say can be very menacing
If he had lungs, he would be out of breath for trying to fit so many words into so few stanzas. Clearly, the Sorting Hat was upset about something. Throughout the centuries, whenever the hat had anything particularly negative to say about the Hogwarts founders and their houses, it was because he didn’t agree with the direction that society was heading. Any time he saw an attack on tradition, he mocked it by projecting the foul language of progress back onto his audience. As such, even though his words came across as a harsh critique of the Hogwarts founders, what he was really saying was this: “Look at how ridiculous you all sound when you try to turn your backs on the great founders of Hogwarts!” If the ironic tone in which he sang was too subtle for the students, then the scowl on his leathery face was unequivocal: Contempt! The strongest possible condemnation of the hippy project of free love and revolution, concepts that were antithetical to the founders’ vision of a people united by loyalty and obedience to authority.
“Very well then,” said Professor McGonagall. “Let’s get on with the ceremony.”
The first-year students (and Teddy) were certain that what they just witnessed was unprecedented in Hogwarts history; others in the room, however, were growing quite accustomed to the Sorting Hat’s elderly outbursts, which had been off and on pretty much since the magical and non-magical Western bloc came to be rocked by the anti-colonial movement and all the revolutionary isms that sprang therefrom. Being used to the hat’s shenanigans, professors and older students took his comments in stride, shrugging off his deranged commentaries as one would do with a batty old grandfather.
“Finally!” Nigel whispered. “The sorting begins.”
Famished and cranky as the lads were, they did relish the sorting as being an opportunity to gossip about other students—including especially the new ones. Professor McGonagall would go down her lengthy list in alphabetical order, and Nigel and his friends would watch the new student approach the stool. If the student seemed of interest, they would offer up their thoughts; if they were a bore, then they would quietly and discreetly discuss other matters. The “A” students fit into the latter category. But then…
“Sirius Black!” Professor McGonagall announced.
“Ho ho!” Xenophilius quietly exclaimed.
The lads watched the young boy with hair the color of his surname approach the stool. He wore an eerily confident smile as the hat went over his head. Too cocksure for a boy his age.
Would the member of the famous Black family follow in his ancestors’ footsteps, or would he deviate from their well-trodden path?
“Whoa mama,” Nigel said. “That’s uh, rather unexpected?”
Dipesh’s eyes nearly fell out onto the still foodless table in front of him. “His parents will be absolutely scandalized!”
Young Sirius looked rather pleased with the Sorting Hat’s decision. If one didn’t know better, one might say that he in fact persuaded the hat to not put him in Slytherin!
Nigel and Xenophilius jumped with joy every time the hat added a new student to Ravenclaw’s ranks (Dipesh, as always, was the more sober one, showing his approval with a simple and polite applause). Conversely, the lads sneered with disgust any time the hat christened a new Slytherin. Their behavior was very much that of robotic humanoids running on simple programming. Of course, they were not the only ones who engaged in this sorting ritual: Nigel saw how Elisabeth Small and her enemy, Thomas Bainbridge, cast threatening expressions at one another as the Sorting Hat called out new Gryffindors and new Slytherins. As they glared at each other, they were thinking about much more than the new Quidditch players they were potentially recruiting; for them, the rivalry between their houses was about much more than a game. This was war, the oldest war, that between good and evil.
“Lily Evans!” Professor McGonagall called, her voice not faltering even after calling out dozens of times.
“Lily Evans?” Nigel whispered to Xen. “Can you conjure a more bourgeois name than that?” Xen chortled happily at Nigel’s remark.
“Another redhead goes to Gryffindor,” Nigel said. “Arthur and Molly will be pleased.” Nigel turned to look at Teddy, who had been silent for some time. “Is this all seeming fairly strange to you, Teddy?”
Teddy laughed and shook his head. “Actually, this is the most familiar thing I’ve seen since I got here. Where I’m from, we love our ancient rivalries as much as y’all do.”
Dipesh looked pensive. “Lupin…why does that sound familiar? I think it’s Latin for something…”
“Dunno,” Nigel spoke, “but he’s a sad looking boy, that’s for sure.”
“Ho hum!” Xenophilius bellowed. “I was certain that boy would make a fine Ravenclaw. He seems far too thoughtful and sensitive for that barbarous house!”
Teddy laughed at Xen’s bizarre mannerisms. Not long after sad little Remus was sorted, Teddy’s own name was called to the hat. He rose from his seat and said, “Here’s hopin’ I don’t get put in Slytherin, right?” The lads bowed slightly as he walked away.
Though he now wore the Hogwarts robes, Teddy still managed to look quite out of place amongst the school’s watchful flock. Striding across the Great Hall, he affected a swagger that seemed to announce his intention to stand apart from the students that surrounded him. Here, young Britons, was a scrappy boy from some barbarous outpost of the Anglophone world, come to the center of it to reveal Man in his natural state!
The Sorting Hat settled into the recesses of Teddy’s mind. “Hmmm, yes…this one is certainly different.” The hat continued his commentary on young Theodore MacArthur, but Nigel could not make out the words that were spoken. After several moments of quiet contemplation, the hat made his decision…and it left Nigel heartbroken.
Students at Ravenclaw table were nearly as disappointed as Nigel. They cast solemn looks at one another. “Shame,” some said. “Damn shame,” others agreed.
“Don’t be so glum, Nigel,” said Dipesh. “It could have been worse.”
“Indeed,” Xen said. “Imagine if the poor man had been placed in Hufflepuff.”
Dipesh looked stupefied. “You think being sorted into Hufflepuff would be worse than Slytherin?”
“You know how we feel about Hufflepuff,” said Nigel. “But a Gryffindor? Crying shame, honestly. I wonder if we misjudged him? What if he’s actually a bit of a prick?”
“Nonsense!” Xen nearly slammed his hands on the table, but stopped himself when he realized the ruckus it would create. “Theodore shared a joint with us. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s made of good stuff. This whole Gryffindor business does come as a bit of a shock though, I won’t lie.”
Over the course of the sorting, Nigel had grown increasingly dubious about the hat’s ability to assign students to houses accurately. His doubts were taken to even greater heights, though, when one Peter Pettigrew, a small rat-like boy, was placed in the house of lions. Nigel thought, what game is the Sorting Hat playing by putting pure-blood fascists, thoughtful and contemplative lads, and utterly defenseless sniveling turds in Gryffindor? At the same time, Nigel’s confidence in the hat was slightly restored when it very correctly assigned a James Potter to Gryffindor house. “That cocky little bastard will get on well there,” he remarked. In Nigel’s opinion, the Sorting Hat once again made the right call by placing in Slytherin a pale-faced boy with greasy black hair whose name hissed as much as the house that he was born to represent: Severus Snape. Given the hat’s apparent inconsistency in appropriately judging students’ character, Nigel concluded that no one, not even the Sorting Hat, can be right all of the time. From there, he was reminded of something Bob Dylan said in a song:
Half of the people can be part right all of the time,
Some of the people can be all right part of the time,
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time
Nigel may have forgotten the rest. In the next line, Dylan suggests that it might have been U.S. President Abraham Lincoln who said that. For readers not steeped in American history, Lincoln would be the man who presided over the nation during its bloody civil war—a conflict that engaged witches and wizards as well. Yet while our people fought with rudimentary weapons on wide open fields of battle, their people fought surreptitiously. Like the Muggles, one side came to believe that treating humans as property was abhorrent and no longer had a place in the modern world, while the other side averred that it was alright all of the time for members of the pureblood white race to own human beings. Most will surely be aware that, fortunately, proponents of slavery did not win the day. In the magical world, the American Civil War finally ended several years after non-magical people put down their arms: the fighting did not fully conclude until 1873, when a powerful dark wizard in Georgia was at last defeated and his bewitched African slaves set free. From that date on, in the United States, just as in Britain, no human had the right to own another. As with Britain, though, the system of enslavement continues in the form of human ownership over house elves (in the magical world, that is).
At Hogwarts Castle, such elven slaves had been toiling away all evening in the kitchens beneath the Great Hall. Once the final first-year student was sorted (Ravenclaw!), the elves magicked the product of their intensive labor up from the kitchens and onto the Great Hall’s massive dining tables.
Nigel looked hungrily at the freshly-baked bread, roast beef, turkey legs, oven-roasted golden potatoes, and the medley of fresh greens before him. Hours of involuntary fasting had transformed him into a desperate carnivorous beast who thought not about the poor little creatures who suffered beneath Ravenclaw table. After having his fill, though, and after a good sleep, he would surely remember their plight. The following morning, he would surely take up the cause of the house elves with renewed vigor, relaunching his campaign to emancipate the elves and make them free workers. First, though, he would gorge himself. Properly gorged, he would then retire to Ravenclaw tower with the lads and take part in the usual post-sorting festivities.
Yes, on occasion, Nigel McPherson was quite like any other teenager: he ate preternatural amounts of food, partied too much, and cared too little about the suffering that the less fortunate must endure in order for him to enjoy his creature comforts.