One day, maybe 13 years ago, my 5th grade teacher opened a book up after lunch and started reading from it. It seems remarkable to me now, 13 years later, that I have absolutely no recollection of that day. I feel like it should be some kind of holiday. It should be marked on my calendar. I should remember what I was wearing, where I was sitting, what the weather was like, what the air smelled like when I first heard the words “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” It seems actually ridiculous that a day of such monumental importance that has literally changed every single day of my life since could have been so easily forgotten.

At the age of 10, or 11–I don’t even remember how old I was, how’s that for you–I do remember sitting on the edge of my seat listening to the book practically ready to stand up shouting to my classmates, “DON’T YOU GUYS GET IT? HE’S TOTALLY A WIZARD.” It’s hard for me to believe that there was ever a time where finding out that Harry Potter was a wizard could’ve been a surprise, one of the many possible answers for all the weird shit surrounding this kid who was 10 (going on 11–like us). I was so frustrated with how fucking slowly my teacher was reading the first couple of chapters that I conned my dad out of $20 and bought the fucking book myself at the Barnes & Noble in the mall where he worked. Funnily, I don’t remember finishing it. I wonder if everybody else in my classroom was having the same reaction, this same slow acceptance that somehow, without even really noticing it happen, something extraordinary had sneaked into our lives. I wonder how many of those people with their heads on their desks changed irrevocably as a result of this seemingly-unremarkable day that my teacher opened up this book and started reading. But really, for me, at least, it started in that bookstore, in that mall, on that otherwise-uninteresting day.

If I have to explain why I loved Harry Potter, then there’s no point explaining it. Don’t you already know? Isn’t the reason that this generation loves Harry Potter pretty well covered at this point? I can’t come up with a single thing that I haven’t already heard somebody say much, much better than I did. If you love Harry Potter, then you know. If you don’t, then you don’t, but I bet you still know–is it so hard to understand why a bunch of kids would love to read about a school for magic, a school so much better than that crappy school they were forced to attend (whichever school it was, trust me, it was crappy, or at least crappier than Hogwarts, which was so fucking pimp that it was in a goddamn castle), and a few kids who go there who had the power to change the entire world?

I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 17 times that summer. I counted. I kept finishing it and would, exasperatedly, throw my hands in the air and start over again because there was nothing else but to read it again. I remember I halfheartedly tried to read some other book, but in the end I’m pretty sure I ended up putting it back in the drawer I took it out of and reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone again. There was no number on the side of the book. I didn’t know anybody else who had read it. There was no internet in my house. I just remember being all alone that summer with these pretty crazy guys–Harry, Ron, and Hermione (they were totally off the hook)–absolutely positively dying to talk about them with somebody and literally not being able to find anybody to talk to about it. But these were some people I could get behind. They were 11–like me–and doing all kinds of crazy shit. Yeah, they were going to school, and doing their homework (it couldn’t be avoided when you were 11), but on the side they were solving mysteries and getting into all kinds of crazy shenanigans. Occasionally, and I know for sure that I was 11 by this point, I would stand out on the porch in the morning and wait for my owl to show up. I knew the ropes. I was 11. It ought to be turning up any day now. It had to turn up in time for me to show up on September 1st, anyway, or I’d miss the first day of term and that would be unacceptable. I was totally Hermione back when I was 11.

(I’m still waiting on that owl, by the way. When it comes, you can bet your sweet ass I shall be attending Hogwarts. I don’t care if I’ll be a 23-year-old first year and it’ll be all Strangers with Candy-like. Whatever. I can be that cool person who buys liquor for the 13-year-olds. No, I wouldn’t do that. Probably.)

Whatever the case when I returned to school that fall–still having not received my owl I decided I was going to suck it up and go to Muggle school until it showed up anyway–I still, remarkably, had almost nobody to talk to about this book. It was like I had made the entire thing up. I was halfway convinced I was totally delusional until some other kid in my class mentioned the book aloud when the teacher was discussing the book reports we would be doing that year. Retrospectively I almost think he was trying to do the same thing I had been–just figure out if anybody else had read the thing for the love of god. “Would it be all right if we did Harry Potter?” he asked.

“Yes,” said the teacher.

“Harry Who?” said the class.

“Harry Potter,” I said. “He’s just zis guy, you know.” That’s not actually what I said. I’m quoting Gag Halfrunt there, sort of.

Quite suddenly the three of us got caught up into this entire conversation about the book that the rest of the class made it quite clear they were just enduring to put off having to hear more about book reports. It was on this day that my teacher informed me that there was another fucking book. I swear to god I don’t think I’ve ever been more amazed in my life as I was when I went back to the bookstore, that same Barnes & Noble, was shown to the asshole of the kid book section by a nice employee when I asked for the second Harry Potter book with great skepticism in my voice, and saw the cover of Chamber of Secrets. I absolutely positively in my whole life have never felt such amazed disbelief. It’s like my brain just wouldn’t process the existence of another book in this series. It had quite decided that there was only the one book and that was that. I’m also fairly certain I have never read a book that fast in my life. (I also regret letting someone borrow that book a couple of years later because it turns out it was pretty valuable.) I can’t even describe how totally blown my mind was by the fact that there were going to be MORE Hogwarts-related shenanigans. The thing that most blows my mind now is that there was a time before I knew Tom Riddle was not just some nice kid with a magic diary, or a time before I knew what Death Eaters were, or a time before I knew the words “Avada Kedavra” or before I knew Sirius Black wasn’t a bad guy but Professor Quirrell was or when I was certain Snape was in league with Voldemort to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone (or when I was certain he wasn’t in league with Voldemort because he was with Dumbledore, or when I was certain he was in league with Voldemort because he killed Dumbledore), or before I had figured out Lupin was a werewolf and Professor Lockhart had not done anything he wrote about in his books or what Parseltongue was or how, exactly, you were supposed to pronounce “Hermione.” These are facts of the world that have become like “Darth Vader is Luke’s father,” and yet I distinctly remember being surprised by every single one of these things.

The night the last Harry Potter book came out I went to that same Barnes & Noble where I’d gotten the first one. The person who sold me the book, the cashier at the register, was the son of that teacher who told me there was a second book. It seems bizarre that the first time I went in there was nobody there at all, that the book was hidden in some shelf in some place you’d never go in that store unless you were looking for it, and the last time I went there to get a Harry Potter book I had to preorder the book several months in advance so I could go get in line at 4 in the morning to get a wristband so I would be one of the first people to get into the store later that night. When I got the book and brought it to my car (it was thundering outside), I held the book in my hands like it was made of glass and tried desperately to decide whether or not I ought to read the flap. I eventually figured out that I wouldn’t be able to stop myself reading it before I’d finished the book anyway, and I opened it and I read on the flap, “We now present the seventh and final installment in the epic tale of Harry Potter,” and I just started to fucking weep. I put it on the passenger’s seat, started my car, and just sat there and cried in the parking lot for a while. And not like misty tears, either. There was some serious flash flood tear action going on. I’m certain that I drooled on myself. I can also vaguely remember the terrible terrible fear that caused me to drive like an old lady on the way home because I was absolutely convinced that I was going to end up getting in a car crash and dying before I got a chance to read the thing. (I also remember refusing to go outside for a few days beforehand because I was certain I was going to be struck by lightning. Man, I’m so hardcore.)

Even though I don’t remember that first day of my life, that day that marks being some shapeless amoeba of an adolescent to being a real person, I do remember everything else. I remember the light in the room when I read Chamber of Secrets and the smell of the basement where I read Order of the Phoenix and the sound of the rain when I finished Half-Blood Prince, but what I remember more than anything else is the way that I felt when I walked out of the bookstore holding one of those books for the first time: the most incredible disbelief that something so amazing could possibly be happening to me. Not just once but every single time. I just couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be holding this thing in my hands, this earth-shattering bunch of paper that would change my life forever and ever up to the day that I die. There will never ever be anything quite like the head-spinning ear-buzzing joy and terror that I felt whenever I held a new Harry Potter book in my hands. Occasionally I’m pretty sure this is too awesome to be true and perhaps this is all part of my 11-year-old delusion, the one where rather than having nobody to talk to at all about this amazing thing that has happened to me I have an entire world full of people who are so absolutely taken by this guy who’s a wizard that I will never want for anyone to talk to about it ever again. I mean I can’t say how different my life would be without Harry Potter because honestly, it is so integral to my very existence, to the people I’ve met and the things that I read and the TV I watch and the way that I act and the stuff I believe in and even the clothes that I wear, that without Harry Potter I would basically just be somebody else, but I didn’t know that when I went into the bookstore when I was 10 or maybe 11 and bought the book and forgot the rest.

And so it was that I grew up with Harry, and Ron and Hermione and everybody else, grew up alongside them and got to know them like they were good friends of mine who lived a ways away but whose letters I was always expecting. When they were 11 and I was 11, it seemed like they were going through some pretty intense shit, and I guess they were for an 11-year-old, and things grew more serious for them as they did for us, which was also weird–because I think about it and I don’t think I would’ve really been able to fathom exactly how severe matters in the world of Harry Potter could get when I was 11. I don’t think they would’ve been able to, either. Our fears changed like theirs did. The shame of losing 150 House points and the fear of losing more was the worst thing imaginable at 11. It would’ve been hard to comprehend the fear that one’s entire life would fall apart or disappear by turning the wrong corner at age 17, that evil was everywhere, all the time, even now, and every moment was about resisting it, but I mean tell that to your 11-year-old self. We really were lucky to grow up when we did, because nobody else will ever grow at the same time and in the same way and experience this story the same way. And we watched them grow before our eyes, too, from these awesome little kids in the first movie to these beautiful adults in the last. And it seems strange to think that there was a time when it was perfectly normal rather than excessively creepy for me to watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and find Ron hot.

I thought I would cry a lot when I saw the last movie, knowing that the jig was up, that it was really over this time, and there was no more of that “well, at least there’s another movie” stuff that I’ve been telling myself for many years. But after all that I didn’t cry, or at least not very much, or at least not very much at the time. I mean I cried, but were tears pouring down my face to a point where people were pointing at me and saying, “You look gross. Are you sure you’re okay?” (This has happened. I watch Return of the King alone because it is frankly embarassing.) No. Perhaps I was just suffering from some kind of lack of computation. I did cry, later on, in my car, with my hand on my chest like gently massaging my heart was going to bring me back from the cardiac arrest I was most likely encouraging. I mean let’s just say I’ve spent enough time crying in my car over Harry Potter in my life at this point for it to be feasibly listed under my “activities” on Facebook. I gasped for air, and I felt so alone, and I remembered the way that I’d felt when I finally closed that 7th book and I thought, “Oh my god. What now?” and I wondered if Harry had felt the same way. Think about this: You’re Harry Potter. You’ve spent the last seven years of your life, basically the entire time you’ve been a real person, in the dogged pursuit of a single goal (defeating Voldemort). Sure it has evolved (you didn’t always know at the time that you were somehow trying to defeat Voldemort, but you generally always had a nagging feeling that turned out to be right), and the game has changed, and there have been nice little asides (Quidditch, dates with Cho Chang), but really you were always doing it. And then, one day, quite suddenly and with a single “Expelliarmus,” you don’t have to do it anymore. It’s just over. You’ve done it. Congratulations! What, Harry Potter, do you do when you realize your life’s work is over? What is left? Do you feel free, or do you feel empty and directionless?

And that’s how I felt, sitting in my car, giving myself a cardiac massage. In some way, in some shape or form, for quite some time–for the entire time that I’ve been a real person–I’ve been waiting to know what’s going on with Harry Potter, waiting because Hermione and Ron and Harry feel like they’re my best friends sometimes and I care very deeply about them (seriously, I’ve known them longer than almost everybody else I know.  How fucking nuts is that?). Even when I was doing something else, I was always waiting. They were always on my mind. And then, after years and years building up to this final moment, when the credits rolled, I no longer had to wait anymore. There was no more waiting to do. I was going to have to get up from the movie theater and go home and have a real, bona fide life of my own, and I was never going to hear from Harry Potter again. That was it. It’s just over. You’ve done it. Congratulations! What do you do when you realize that story you’ve been waiting to conclude for your whole life is over? What is left? Do you feel free, or do you feel empty and directionless?

Somehow we, those kids who grew up with Harry Potter (and we are lucky), seem to know instinctively that this is the end of an era. It really is the end of our childhoods. What started in one corner of the mall ended in the other for me; I’ve bought the first and last books here, seen all eight movies here, gone from a kid who didn’t remember a thing about that first day I knew who Harry Potter was to a grown-up who could never ever forget and who still, secretly of course, believes in magic and that the Hogwarts letter will turn up, and I know that there is no better time to close the book on this part of my life and open up another one somewhere else in a different mall in a different town. This life is over now, for me and for all of us who grew up Potter, who opened up the books at 10 and watched the credits roll at 23 and realized that now we’ve just finished growing up and, like Harry & Gang, our lives must go on, too, but somewhere else, somewhere off the pages that we already know, somewhere amorphous and devastatingly new. We grew up with Harry, and we have to really, seriously grow up with him, too. For a lot of us it really is the non-hyperbolic death of our childhoods, the perfect chance–and one we all seem to recognize–to bid farewell to the Boy Who Lived and tuned us into the people we are today and I guess go be those people that we are now and are in so many ways because of him. So I guess, while it is the death of our childhoods, it is the birth of our adulthoods, but it is surreal and shapeless and some of us (like Harry) have to face the fact that we’ve lost our pie in the sky, the thing we didn’t realize we were so devoted to waiting for, and now that it’s gone we’ve actually got to come up with some kind of new plan, or at least grow accustomed to not having a plan. It’s odd, and, like Harry Potter, the first feeling I can seem to come up with when confronted with this notion is: hungry.

But it’s okay, really, because, to quote Professor Lupin, for now I’ll say goodbye, Harry. I feel sure we’ll meet again sometime. Until then…mischief managed.