When my son Tim was ten, he came home from school one day and told us at the dinner table about his day touring the middle school with his grade school class. After he finished explaining about Bryan Middle School in Elmhurst, which he would be attending next year, I told him it was a waste of his time.
I told him his mother and I had decided to send him to Hogwarts, the school Harry Potter attended. He smiled and said, “Right, Dad.”
Ours was a Harry Potter family since my in-laws gave Tim the first Harry Potter book six months before his peers were able to get it. They procured it from a friend in London, where the books were published before being distributed to the rest of the world.
Every time there was a new book published, Tim would get it first. He had the English version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone rather than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as it was sold in the U.S.
We had attended some early showings of some of the Harry Potter movies with his Cub Scout friends as a result of Tim being a $1000 seller of Scout popcorn.
When Tim shrugged off us sending him to Hogwarts, it got me thinking. What if the boys in his Cub Scout den and friends in another den were to receive a letter that they had been recommended from Hogwarts? And what if they were called down to their grade school principal’s office and handed the letter?
Could I and some collaborating parents stir our children’s imaginations with a full-fledged prank like this? But we would not stop there.
I gathered a group of parents together on a Cub Scout overnight at the Adler Planetarium on Chicago’s lakefront one spring Friday evening. I convinced them to participate and they all came up with ideas to make the scheme seem more believable.
We mapped the whole scheme out there amid the planets, stars and telescopes in the planetarium. The boys would receive a letter at school from the principal. They all attended Lincoln School in Elmhurst and had the same principal the whole time. I told her our plans, asked her to participate and she agreed. Once they received the recommendation letter, the boys would have to fill out an application we created to accept their placement at Hogwarts and mail it to an address in London, where the assistant of one of the moms in the group lived.
From there, they would receive a second letter on very official looking Hogwarts letterhead produced on an inkjet printer accepting them to Hogwarts and giving them instructions on where and when to start a quest to find the portkey to travel to Hogwarts.
“A Portkey was a magical object enchanted to instantly bring anyone touching it to a specific location. In most cases, a Portkey was an everyday object that would not draw the attention of a Muggle.”
The first stop on the quest would be to a local barber shop two blocks from our home in a tucked away business district with a rather intimidating barber with a shop full of antique guns and swords on the wall. The barber, who cut both our boys’ hair all their lives, agreed to participate.
The second stop was to an ice cream shop across the street and a couple of stores south on York road. This ice cream store had been a Ben & Jerry’s that opened shortly after we bought our house in the neighborhood. Now, it was rebranded to something else.
The boys at the first stop would receive a notebook with a poem with a riddle in it to tell them where the second stop was. It also included a gift certificate for a free ice cream cone.
We had arranged for the ice cream store to make their flavor of the day, “ear wax.” In the Harry Potter books, the flavors of the Bertie Botts Beans included: Banana, Black Pepper, Blueberry, Booger, Candyfloss, Cherry, Cinnamon, Dirt, Earthworm, Earwax, Grass, Green Apple, Marshmallow, Rotten Egg, Sausage, Lemon, Soap, Tutti-Fruitti, Vomit and Watermelon.
We figured ear wax was a good medium choice for an ice cream flavor among some of the rather untasteful ones. I asked the owner of the ice cream store what ice cream would look most like earwax and he said, “is this a test?” A teenage assistant manager suggested pralines and cream flavor. I agreed. It was gnarly looking and could pass for earwax flavored.
The boys were also given instructions on where to go next, along with a certificate for a wand, which was a shop next door called the “Shaver Shop.” This was a quirky little shop that sold and repaired various shavers and razors, but also sold cards and knick knacks. Today it is a wine shop where you can enjoy a bottle of wine and some delicious charcuterie.
It was here that they would receive a box just like in the Harry Potter books that included a personally designed wand and a part of a map. We were trying to find something that reminded the boys of Ollivanders magical wand shop, the place where Harry received his wand.
The pieces of the map when all put together showed the location of the portkey. One of the dads was very handy in the workshop and designed and built a unique wand for each of the boys. He also designed and hand-drew the map.
Some of the boys were headed to a YMCA summer camp, so they took their trek on a Friday, while the others took it on Saturday. Once the boys received their acceptance letters on the Hogwarts letterhead, which I taped to the doors of their homes, some of them went on an early reconnaissance trip.
What the curious boys found out was that the barber had a sign that he was on vacation and would not be back for a couple of weeks. He had forgotten about our prank. Also, because some of the boys were leaving town to go to the YMCA camp, they needed to take the trek a day earlier than we had mentioned in the acceptance letter.
Thus, we had to scramble and come up with a new first location for the boys to go to and a way to explain it that made sense. One of the dads and I went back and forth on ideas until I came up with the plan.
Here is what we decided. We would send them a new letter. The letter would say that one of the mail delivering owls we had deployed to send them the previous letters did not return and thus we were concerned that the “one we must not name” had intercepted our communication with them. Voldemort was a risk we all wanted to avoid.
As proof of our concern about the noseless villain, we told them that the barber at the first location we were to send them to had fled the town in fear. Thus, our plan was to move up the schedule for the trek by 24 hours.
We also made arrangements for the business next door, a flower shop, to be the first stop where they would receive the journals with the poem.
I had stopped by this shop and asked them to participate. It turned out that the assistant manager was a big Harry Potter fan. She even had her own cape, and when one of the dads dropped off the journals at the shop, she asked if he would be interested in going to a Harry Potter festival in London that year. She was a big fan.
The crisis was averted with an explanation letter on Hogwarts letterhead delivered with owl claw marks on the envelope. The new venue to start the quest was included in the letter. However, there were a variety of reactions overall from the boys to our prank.
When he was called down to the principal’s office and saw all his Scouting friends in the hall, one boy wondered where the cameras were, as they must be on Candid Camera or some similar show.
He was a doubter but stayed up late at night wondering, “What if?” His sister was a stone-eyed realist who did not want him to go away to Hogwarts. She was upset and pointed out that the letters to her brother were printed on an inkjet printer, which they did not have at Hogwarts from her reading of the books.
There was another boy who was very interested in going to Hogwarts to learn magic medicine to help cure his sister, who was very ill.
Another boy filled out his application and mailed it the first day. His little brother wanted to go with him.
Another boy filled out his application and would go along with the crowd.
My son Tim was having none of it. He would not fill out the application and mail it in. He knew me all too well. It was also a difficult and emotional time, as Tim’s maternal grandfather had just died – the one who had sent the Harry Potter books to him.
I sat down with Tim and tried my best to reason with him. I tried bribing him. I tried threatening him. I tried every trick in the parent’s book of tricks, but came to the conclusion he was not going to buy it.
So we flipped Tim and leveled with him about the prank. He agreed to play along and was from that point a great help with the other boys in moving the prank along.
On the day when most of the boys went on their quest, some of the mothers came along too and decided to film the event. It kind of ruined some of the specialness of the moment for me, but oh well.
The boys went to the flower shop and received their journals. They figured out the riddle and went to the ice cream store for their earwax ice cream cone. They proceeded to the Shaver Shop and received their wands and maps.
One of the little brothers along for the trek looked at the map and proclaimed, “My dad could make a map like that.” In fact, his dad had made the map.
The next day, the boys left to go to a YMCA camp in Wisconsin in the middle of the state for a week-long adventure. We dads would pick them up at the YMCA camp a week later, do their wash at a local laundromat, and then proceed to the Sylvania Wilderness Area in the Ottawa National Forest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a dad and boy canoe trip.
The first night of the trip, at the Sylvania Wilderness trailhead campground from which we would leave on the canoe trip, the boys all got together for the first time on a picnic bench and assembled the map pieces into a single map.
The assembled map showed the area where we were going camping after canoeing across the lake. The portkey was the KYBO, or pot in the woods where we went to the bathroom. We told them to jump right in.
The next morning we went and collected our canoes, life jackets and paddles for the trip. And then we embarked across Clark Lake to our campsite.
By Wednesday the discussion about the trip to Hogwarts was getting hot and heavy. We decided it was time to level with the boys about our prank and why we did it.
The air was let out of our gambit and the boy who wanted to cure his sister said, “I knew it.” And the other boys said, “Yah, right.” He had bought it, hook line and sinker.
Needless to say, my confession about being behind this prank ruined my ability to prank my other children forever. Whenever I would try to say something a little off to my children, my son Robby would always just say to my daughter, “Remember who you are talking to.”
One never knows the result of such efforts. I like to think it made the boys think. I would like to think they used their imaginations and put themselves in the world of Hogwarts, if only for a short time. If it did that, then it accomplished my goal. That was the magic I was hoping for.