Friday, October 17, 2014

A Visit from the Head Master

I wrote this a few years ago when I was applying for a summer program for writing teachers. I made it to the interview round, but I wasn't choosen. Still, I had fun writing it and I thought English Teachers and Harry Potter fans would enjoy it. I hope I was right.

Happy reading.

A Visit from the Head Master

Professor Fingerson is sprawled across her desk, her arms folded into a bumpy pillow of flesh and bone. It is late in the evening and she has fallen asleep over student papers once again. 

As she slumbers the door of her classroom silently opens. A white haired and worn hand inches into the silence and a single click echoes through the room. Suddenly every light flashes out, zooming into the deluminator clutched by the hand of Albus Dumbledore, Head Master of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. His blue robed figure is hidden by darkness. As he enters the classroom all that can be seen of him are the long tendrils of white hair that stick out of the pointed hat resting crookedly on his head. 

Dumbledore quietly approaches Professor Fingerson's sleeping form, pausing momentarily to watch her ineffective slumber and then placing a single sheet of parchment next to her hand. When he slips out a few moments later the lights flash back into brightness and Professor Fingerson jumps awake, tipping in her chair until she regains her balance.

With an exclamation of surprise, Professor Fingerson discovers the parchment resting on her paper strewn desk. 

Please join me in my office at your earliest convenience. 
- Albus

With a chuckle, Professor Fingerson stands, adjusts her robes and follows after her quizzical headmaster. She is confident that this summons will include an adventure, of one sort or another. She catches up with him just as he is passing the stone gargoyle that guards his office. 


"Ah, Professor Fingerson. I hope I did not disturb you. No doubt you are quite busy." Professor Dumbledore nods hello. "That was quite a pile of essays on your desk.

Professor Fingerson cannot help the sigh that escapes her lips. It is indeed quite a pile of essays, if you can call them essays. In the past her students' work always read more like lifeless summaries. They have moved beyond that for the most part and now almost all of her students are able to follow the foundational essay structure, but there is still something missing and she has come to dread grading nights as tedious hours reading the same essay over and over again, even if each is written by a different student.

Dumbledore immediately acknowledges the sigh. "That doesn't sound promising." 

"It's nothing for you to worry about Head Master."

"Oh, but I do worry." Dumbledore gestures towards his office before he continues. "Please, join me. We can discuss your concerns."

With a hopeful nod Professor Fingerson follows him up the stairs and into the office. She is immediately surrounded by a barrage of snores. It is so late that even the portraits of the previous headmasters of Hogwarts have all fallen into slumber. 

"So, tell me. What is keeping you up so late grading papers?" 

As she settles into the cushioned chair across from him, Professor Fingerson considers her problem. It takes her a few moments to gather her thoughts together, but not so long that the headmaster offers the use of the pensive glowing in the corner. She has been considering this question for some time and she wants to clearly articulate her concerns. 

"My students don't seem to enjoy writing as much as I would hope. I worry that they are not getting enough out of the writing exercises I assign them."

Professor Fingerson watches as Dumbledore rests his head in his hands, quietly contemplating her concerns. 

"Perhaps we should start at the beginning." He says. "What are your hopes for them?"

"Well, the problem isn't structure. They know the basic requirements for writing an essay. It's more a question of voice and ... self reflection. They don't seem to be able, or willing, to connect with what they are writing about. Their essays are to be honest, boring."

Professor Fingerson watches as the headmaster leans back into his chair to consider her response. After a moment he sits up and stares at her through his rectangular spectacles.  

"Before we make a plan for your students I think it would be wise, and I am usually right, if we think about what kind of writer you are." 

The portraits of the past headmasters are startled awake at the excitement in Professor Fingerson's almost immediate response to Dumbledore. She is on the edge of her seat, gesturing passionately with each new sentence and speaking until the air in her chest runs out and she is forced to take a breath. 

"That's the root of my concern, Head Master. I just love writing. I spend hours and hours lost in the worlds I create on the page. I realized recently that I am so passionate about what I write because it all comes back to the issues and topics that impact my life. I learn something new about myself and the world every time I sit down to write and I want to share those messages, those realizations with the world. I don't expect my students to love writing as much as I do, but I want them to learn from it; to learn about themselves and to learn about their world."

With the gasp of breath that Professor Fingerson releases with her final word, Fawkes, Dumbledore's pet Phoenix, is awoken and lets out a screech of surprise. Amidst the whispers of the portraits and the flapping of wings, Dumbledore continues to meet Professor Fingerson's eyes.

"I guess my next question would be how you have approached teaching writing up to this point?" 

"Well, that depends on the needs of my students. I have always believed that you need to know the rules in order to break them appropriately. So I always begin by discussing the structure of paragraphs and essays. Depending on the needs of the students, we then start discussing the different types of essays: expository, persuasive, compare and contrast, literary response, ect. 

"That sounds like a very traditional and appropriate course of study," he responds, leaning back into his chair and gently petting the Phoenix's red fiery red wings. 

"I know, and some aspects of it are wonderful, but I want to push my students past that. I want them to see the magic in the written word. I want them to understand that every word counts and that they can do amazing things with writing if they are willing to take risks." 

A gruff voice scoffs in disbelief as Professor Fingerson finishes speaking. It is the portrait of Phineas Black, the mean tempered head master from the late 19th century. "And how do you propose to accomplish this?" he barks out of his frame.

Professor Fingerson can't hide the smirk of anger that appears on her face at this response.  But when her eyebrows furrow in doubt it becomes clear that she doesn't know what to expect from Dumbledore. 

"Now Phineas, that isn't fair. Just because you would not choose to teach writing in such a way, does not mean it is not a reasonable option." 

At Dumbledore's words Professor Fingerson instantly lets out a quiet sigh of relief. Perhaps she has a chance of succeeding if Dumbledore is on her side. She leans back into her seat as Dumbledore continues speaking.

"It sounds like your greatest desire is to help your students really reflect on life and the writing process, to really learn about themselves and their opinions as they explore the written word?" Dumbledore pauses once again to meet Professor Fingerson's eyes. "Would that be an accurate assessment of your deepest desire as a teacher?"

Professor Fingerson feels a trail of excitement run up her spine at Dumbledore's words. "Yes, Head Master. I want them to care about the message they are spreading with each writing assignment, to care about whether their message is understood. I want them to use their writing to take risks, to push themselves to a higher level of thinking and self reflection."

"Then, I believe it is time we visited the Mirror of Erised."

The voice of the portrait of Phineas Black echoes through the room once more. 

"Ha, I knew it. He doesn't believe it can work either. Her so called dream is impossible and Dumbledore knows it."

"What makes you say that, Phineas?" Dumbledore asks, still calmly relaxing in the recesses of his chair.

"You said it yourself Dumbledore, to that silly Potter boy. 'It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.' "

As Dumbledore stands he raises a hand toward Professor Fingerson, inviting her to follow him as he addresses the former head master. "True, Phineas. I did say that. But that is only true if the desire is an impossibility." Turning to face Professor Fingerson once more, Dumbledore continues.

"So, you must ask yourself Professor Fingerson, is what you dream of possible?" 

With her eye darting between the two head masters, Professor Fingerson takes a deep breath and rises to a stand. 

"Yes, Head Master. Yes it is."

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