“I hope we actually learn something in this class this year,” Rowan Khanna was saying as a group of Hogwarts students lined up in the corridor outside the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom on the first day of their second year.
“Me too,” said Ben Copper. “I feel like the only time I learned any defensive magic is when we went to that room with the ice. I might have been much less scared if we’d had a teacher who did something other than read to us about the exploits of the Heros of Olde.”
“I’m not sure you would have been,” said Connor Murgatroyd, gently elbowing his friend with a chuckle.
“Well, I still would have been scared,” Ben admitted, “But maybe better prepared.
“I can’t believe you three still think there’s a point to all of this.” Merula Snyde appeared behind Ben, who squeaked and jerked away with an odd hopping motion. Merula sneered at him before continuing, “These classes certainly aren’t going to help me find the Cursed Vaults before you. Because I’m the best witch at Hogwarts and I can find them without help.”
“Why haven’t you, then?” said Connor, a bit wearily. He had bested Merula in enough duels by now that her constant taunting was more tireseome than threatening.
Merula huffed and was about to reply, but the classroom door creaked open, and they all followed the rest of the second-years inside.
The Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom had hardly changed since the preveious year. The vaulted ceilings still displayed various skeletons, presumably of Dark Creatures, surrounding a simple cast-iron chandelier. This year, though, instead of individual desks, or large tables for group work, there were small tables lined up in neat rows, with two chairs behind each. The professor, who was currently nowhere to be seen, had drawn up a seating chart on the board, rather uncreatively arranging the students alphabetically.
Ben groaned. “Guess I don’t get to sit with you guys this year” he muttered to Connor and Rowan. He looked again and brightened. “Oh! Ada Corcoran is nice though,” he turned and gave a small wave to the red-haired Ravenclaw who was already seated at their desk in the front row, adjusting her green headband.
Rowan shrugged, peering at the chart. “Jae Kim- he’s in Gryffindor with you, right Ben? What’s he like?”
“Terrifying,” said Ben. “Our very first night here last year, he tried to sell me a teacup and it bit me on the nose! He got detention, but I haven’t really talked to him since.”
“I’ll be careful,” Rowan promised.
The three boys departed to their respective seats.
Connor looked for his desk on the far left side of the classroom, a few rows behind Ben, and found his table-mate already there.
Looking at Ismelda Murk always gave Connor distinct impression he was looking at a younger, more female version of Severus Snape. She had the same greasy black hair that hung limply into her eyes, which were heavily outlined with make-up. Her nails were painted black, and she wore Slytherin robes and a bored expression.
“You’re that cursed kid, aren’t you?” she said as Connor sat down.
Connor groaned. Of course, she was Merula’s friend. They’d never worked together before, but she probably already hated him.
Before he could answer, though, the door to the professor’s office opened, and a short, stout man with a receding hairline and a thick moustache approached the front of the room. He wore nondescript charcoal-gray robes and thick, round glasses, and he walked with a slight limp.
“Good afternoon, class,” he said in a dry voice. “My name is Professor Ethan Hopkins, and I’ll be teaching you the basics of Defense Against the Dark Arts.” He waved his wand, and the seating chart vanished from the blackboard. The words Pair and Share appeared in large letters.
“A bit of background about me,” Professor Hopkins continued, “Is that I have been a teacher for thirty-three years. I have taught in schools both magical and mundane, and I am pleased to return to Britain after spending the past decade establishing wizarding primary schools in America.
“Pair and Share is what I have found to be the most effective teaching method in my classroom. It works like this: I will ask you a question. When I say “Pair” you will discuss the answer to my question with the partner at your desk. When I say “Share,” you may then raise your hand and answer my question. This prevents any one student from monopolizing classroom discussions.”
Connor glanced across the room at Rowan. His friend was already taking notes, undoubtably already planning to consider Professor Hopkins’ pedagogical approach in his own future teaching career. The boy next to Rowan, on the other hand, was watching Rowan’s quill hand with an expression of mixed disdain and bemusement.
“Let us practice now,” Professor Hopkins said. “What are some behaviours you should follow in the classroom? And don’t forget to introduce yourself to your partner if you haven’t already! Ready? Pair!”
“Don’t murder the teacher,” mumbled Connor’s table-mate. “Your turn.”
“He probably just wanted us to say stuff like ‘raise your hand’, or ‘make sure to bring enough parchment.’ I’m Connor Murgatroyd, by the way. I saw you in Potions class last year, but we’ve never really met.” Connor offered his hand, but the girl didn’t shake it, just nodded.
“Parchment is made from dead animal skin, you know,” she said. “Ismelda Murk.”
“Do… do you like studying how things are made?” Connor asked, attempting to find a conversational response to her statement.
“No,” Ismelda said, “I just like dead things.”
“Ok, now share!” Professor Hopkins said.
After gathering responses from a few students, he asked the next question. “What would you like to learn in this class this year? Pair!”
Ismelda turned towards Connor. “Do you think tarantulas would make good pets?”
“Um, that’s probably not part of the curriculum,” Connor stammered.
“My dad won’t let me get one.” Ismelda said. She picked up her quill and then started doodling spiders on her page.
“She didn’t really answer any of Professor Hopkins’ questions,” Connor said to his friends after class was over.
Rowan nodded sympathetically. “My partner didn’t either. He tried to sell me some ‘special’ Exploding Snap cards though. I don’t know what was unique about them.”
Ben’s eyes grew wide. “You didn’t buy one, did you?”
“Nah,” said Rowan, “I’ve already got a deck.”
“Why? That game is obnoxious! It’s loud, startling, basically everything I don’t like in a game.”
“It’s not so bad once you get used to it,” Connor said. Ben didn’t look like he believed him.
The following week, Professor Hopkins started class with another Pair and Share. “To better get to know each other, let’s discuss some favourite things! Starting with your favourite magical creature. Pair!”
Connor could just hear Rowan start expounding on the virtues of Bowtruckles to a distracted-looking Jae before Ismelda turned towards him.
“Lethifolds,” she said bluntly, “Or maybe Thestrals.”
“Thestrals are actually pretty interesting,” Connor replied.
“Have you ever seen one?” Ismelda asked, suddenly sitting up a little straighter.
“Sure, they pull the carriages from the Hogwarts Express.”
“That means you’ve watched someone die!” Ismelda’s green eyes shone with an odd light as she looked directly at him.
“Yeah, technically,” said Connor. “My grandfather Louis got really sick when I was seven, and most of the family was in the room when he passed.”
“But his ghost was up and about around the house within a fortnight. So yeah, while I have seen someone die, I haven’t really experienced the loss that comes with it. I was a little surprised I could see the Thestrals, honestly. I did some reading about them- I guess it’s a misunderstanding that they are solely creatures of grief.”
“So you have a your dead granddad’s ghost living with you?” Ismelda asked, looking impressed.
“Not just him,” Connor relaxed a bit, getting the feeling that Ismelda would be thrilled with the piece of information he was about to share. “There are no less than twenty-seven ghosts of various ancestors in the Murgatroyd household.”
“Wow.” A hint of a smile played accross Ismelda’s lips, but disappeared before she could say more, because Professor Hopkins shouted, “Share!” and Charlie Weasley’s hand shot into the air, and the class was subjected to an excited impromptu lecture of the virtues and vices of several different breeds of dragons, before Professor Hopkins cut him off and began with his lesson on Dark Creatures.
Ismelda gave Connor a cool nod and doodled ghosts on her parchment for the rest of Professor Hopkins’ lecture.
The following week, when Connor sat down in the Defense Against the Dark Arts Classroom, Ismelda nodded cooly and brushed her bangs partially out of her eyes, before Professor Hopkins asked them to consider what they would do if they had been cursed.
“Ask Murgatroyd! He’s already cursed!” Merula Snyde called out.
“Pair first, Miss Snyde! Mr. Murgatroyd can Share afterwards if he desires.”
Merula rolled her eyes and turned back to talk to her table-mate, Hufflepuff Lexi Smith.
“Is it true then, Murgatroyd?” Ismelda asked, examining her fingernails as if she was attempting to care more about the chipped black polish than about Connor’s answer. “That you’re cursed?”
“Technically, yeah. But not in the way Merula keeps saying. Nothing to do with my brother and the Vaults. But there is a curse on the Murgatroyd family. You remember last week when I told you about my grandfather’s ghost?”
“Yeah,” Ismelda had taken her quill and started dabbing ink onto the chipped places in her nail polish, watching the black liquid swirl across her nails and onto her skin. A bit dripped onto the table.
“Well, that’s the curse. My ancestor Rupert Murgatroyd was a Squib, back in the sixteenth century. He developed a resentment for magic, they say, and joined up with Muggles in the persecution of witchcraft. One day, his ex-lover was brought to the stake, but she cursed him as she died. All the magical energy that was released upon her death has made the curse span generations, even after magic re-surfaced in our bloodline. Some of my ancestors have broken parts of it, or found loopholes to avoid consequences. But none of my forefathers have been able to move on after death. The family Baronial Castle has a portrait-gallery with images of most of them, and they move and talk just like most wizard paintings, but my ancestors can also step out of the portraits as semi-corporeal ghosts, though they can’t leave the castle.”
“Cool,” said Ismelda, her eyes betraying a newfound respect for Connor. “I wish my family was as interesting as that.” She didn’t elaborate, instead, using her parchment to dab the wet ink off her nails. She paused, and turned back towards Connor. “So when you told Merula, that one time, that you know your brother’s not dead, that wasn’t just wishful thinking?”
Connor blinked, taken aback by her perceptiveness. “Yeah. I do know. My great-great-granduncle Thomas ran away to sea. He was a pirate, though not a very successful one, he says. I suppose there’s not a lot to plunder off the coast of Cornwall. Anyway, no one from the family saw him for decades, but he showed up in the portrait gallery when he died. Jacob may be missing, but unless he’s managed to find a way to break a powerful blood curse, he’s not dead.”
Professor Hopkins stopped them then, and the rest of class passed as he talked about various historical examples of wizards who had successfully removed enchantments from cursed objects. He then gave them the week’s reading assignment and dismissed the class, disappearing into his office.
“You’re all right, you know that, Murgatroyd?” Ismelda said as they gathered their parchment and quills into their bags. She paused and took a deep breath. “Look, don’t get any idea that I like you or anything, but- I’ve been working with Merula on nearly every assignment, and I was thinking- well, you know more than she does about blood curses. Would you… would you like to write the next essay together?”
Connor nearly dropped his inkwell, but he nodded. “Sure. I’ve been meaning to get to know some more people from other Houses anyway.”
“We’re not going to be friends or anything,” Ismelda turned away from him, hair flopping across her face. “You’re just useful, because you know things.” She strode to the back of the room, meeting Merula on the way out.
Connor watched them go, wondering just how many times the phrase “You’re just useful because you know things” had been said by a Slytherin to a Ravenclaw- he somehow suspected they had just played out a long-running stereotype of cooperation between those two Houses. Then smiled to himself, surprised as he realized he was actually looking forward to the next Defense Against the Dark Arts class. Then he hoisted his bag and walked to meet Rowan and Ben on their way to the Great Hall for lunch.