The highlight of my year was always the welcome feast, and this year’s did not disappoint. The Sorting Hat’s song was a lot more cautionary than usual and we gained a fresh crop of the most spectacularly sullen and weedy-looking of the first years, but I pasted a smile on my face, welcomed them to Hogwarts and the noble house of Salazar Slytherin and made small talk with the other members of my year, who seemed to be the last group of truly ambitious, resourceful Slytherins before the Sorting Hat decided to start throwing all the bitter, vengeful purebloods our way instead.
The new DADA teacher wasn’t anyone to write home about. She wore a lot of pink, was short and squat and reminded me of an early childhood teacher who hadn’t realised the students she was talking to were a good five to ten years older than her usual target audience. I took an instant dislike to her because of her patronising tone, but forced myself to consider the possibility that maybe that was the way she talked to everybody and I shouldn’t take her high-pitched voice as a personal affront.
She was also a typical politician in that she made a lengthy speech with a lot of buzz words and not much substance, with no regard for her adolescent, hungry audience who weren’t paying the slightest bit of attention to her. Even Lycurgus Landon, the other seventh-year prefect and a stickler for rules, had slumped onto his empty plate and was openly snoring. I figured it was his way of showing the world that he didn’t get Head Boy and therefore no longer gave a shit about anything.
I poked Lycurgus awake when the new teacher, Professor Umbridge, concluded her speech and Dumbledore let us eat. The table was full of gossip about what everyone got up to in the holidays, so I piled my plate high and used that as an excuse to stay out of the conversation. Slytherins were an elitist bunch, and the news that I’d spent three months working at Tomes and Scrolls in Hogsmeade was likely to be met with disdain. I was forgiven a certain number of social transgressions on account that I was a half-blood and therefore unfamiliar with the aristocratic pureblood ways, but I preferred not to draw too much attention to the fact that, in regard to blood status, I was the odd one out of my house.
As far as I knew, at least. Maybe one of these weedy first-years shared my heritage. I hoped, for their sake, they were capable of rising above it.
I had my first Defence Against the Dark Arts class the next morning, claiming a seat next to Oliver. As usual, there was excited chatter before the class – while we’d had the same teachers for most of our subjects for the past six years, DADA changed every year, so it was always exciting to come in on the first day. I didn’t know what I expected from Umbridge – she was totally inexperienced with teaching, so my best guess was that she would try and teach precisely from the curriculum, but be useless at class control. We’d probably drive her to a mental breakdown at some point (and by ‘we’ I was being all-encompassing, seventh-years tended to be better behaved than the younger ones) and she wouldn’t stay another year. None of them ever did. It was an unbreakable pattern.
I was right on the first point. She handed out introductory level textbooks on defensive theory and quietly informed us that we would have no need for wands until we got the basics down.
“Excuse me, Professor,” Fred Weasley began in the most polite voice I’d ever heard him use on a teacher.
“Students will raise their hands when asking questions,” Professor Umbridge responded.
“Yeah, sorry,” Fred said, and raised his hand.
“Yes –” she paused to consult the roll, “Mr Weasley?”
“Gonna have to do better than that, miss, there are two of us,” George called.
“And so it begins,” Oliver whispered with a long-suffering sigh.
“Yes, I can see that, dear,” Umbridge said patiently.
“It’s just, you’re going to have to be a bit more specific, y’see,” Fred continued.
“Wouldn’t want to call me Fred, or him George, or any of that.”
“Ah, yes. The other teachers warned me about you two. Fred and George, yes? Apparently you’re quite the comedians.” Umbridge gave them a little smile, her voice becoming even more sweet. “If you disturb my class, or give me cheek, or try to switch names, you will both receive detention. Am I clear?”
The boys nodded, and George raised his hand.
“What I think Freddie was trying to say, was that this is a first year textbook—”
Fred’s hand shot up as he finished his brother’s sentence. “And, well, we’re a bit bigger than first years—”
“I know you probably don’t see many kids at the Ministry, miss—”
“But the little ones with the knobbly knees and the bewildered faces are the first years—”
“Always look at the knees, miss, can’t go wrong—”
“And the difference between us and first years, miss—”
“Is that we’ve been studying magic six years longer than they have.”
“Enough,” Umbridge interrupted, the smile on her face now unnervingly large. “Ten points each from Gryffindor.”
The other students exchanged glances, a fair number turning to Oliver and I. Remembering the clause in our Head Prefect contract which named us as representatives and advocates of the students with the right to question unfair treatment, I looked from the twins to Umbridge, rolled my eyes, and stood.
She turned to face me, eyes narrowing. “Who gave you permission to stand up?”
“Just making a point. With regard to the twins, the Hogwarts code of conduct states that points may be taken from students for breaking of rules deliberately set out in the code of conduct, and for disruption in the classroom. Fred and George were merely pointing out a legitimate concern about the curriculum, and, aware that you are a new teacher, chose to give you the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming you were deliberately negating the last six years of our magical education by starting us from scratch. This was in no way disruptive, particularly as it took place during the period of time allocated to teachers for the discussion of the curriculum – the first half hour of the first day.”
“And who do you think you are?”
My name had never been anything special. It wasn’t impressive sounding, and it certainly didn’t have the same history behind it as the purebloods belonging to ancient families. But for the first time my name had authority and power, and that knowledge gave me a thrill like no other.
“I see,” Umbridge said slowly. “The Head Girl.”
“And as I understand it, you’re the representative of the students, yes? With the ability to question the way I teach my class?”
“If it goes against the principles of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, yes.”
“Hm.” She smiled sweetly at me. “We’ll see about that. Twenty points restored to Gryffindor – for now. Sit down, Miss Greenslade.”
All eyes were fixed on me by this point, and as I sat down and Umbridge turned away, they grinned and gave me the thumbs up. Fred reached over and clapped my hand in his in a half high five, half handshake, and during the break Oliver declared me Champion of the People.
I was in a good mood for the rest of the day, especially as I walked through the corridors and first years stood aside to let me pass, whispering to each other, “Look, that’s the Head Girl.” I had been under the impression last year that my ego couldn’t possibly get any bigger, but I was proven thoroughly, gloriously wrong. My good mood didn’t abate until a second-year girl approached me in the common room after dinner with a note from Professor Umbridge, written on pink stationery with flowers along the edges, asking me to please come to her office for a little chat.
I knocked on the door of the DADA office, startled at the sight of the walls, charmed an alarming shade of pink and decorated with hundreds of pictures of cats. They were all meowing at me, and I felt somewhat unnerved. I didn’t have anything against cats; I had one of my own who was likely as not currently lounging in front of the fire in the Slytherin common room (I had no idea how he kept escaping from my dorm, but that was his business) but there was something about Umbridge’s forced, over-the-top benevolence which set alarm bells off in my head.
“Sit down,” Umbridge told me, gesturing to the chair opposite hers. “Tea?”
“No thank you.”
She stirred milk and sugar into her own and leaned earnestly forward. “We have a problem, don’t we, Amelia?”
“I don’t like you and you don’t like me?”
Umbridge laughed – a high, mirthless giggle – and took a sip of her tea. “Bold words for a seventeen year old girl, don’t you think?”
“Age has nothing to do with it.”
“Oh, I think you’ll find that it does. You see, you’re nobody. You may think you’re special, wearing that little badge, but I am the Ministry. And no badge gives you the right to contradict the Ministry.”
I eyed her carefully.
“That little stunt you pulled in my classroom – I’m sure you’re very proud of it. Made you very popular with your little friends.”
“If you want something from me, Professor, a good place to start would be to stop patronising me.”
“You’re not in a position to negotiate, Amelia.”
I folded my arms. “Then neither are you. Is there any purpose to this conversation other than trying to intimidate me, or should I be going now?”
“The tide is turning at Hogwarts. You may have special rights and privileges now, while Dumbledore is in charge. But the Ministry is stepping in, Amelia. And I can take what power you have away from you like…” she snapped her fingers, “that.”
She smiled, triumphant.
She had played her trump card. She knew it. I knew it.
“What do you want?” I asked finally, not allowing my words to sound like a concession.
“Oh, I’m sure we can come to an arrangement later on,” she told me. “For now, I just want to make sure you know where you stand.”
She leaned back in her chair, a gesture I took for dismissal. I stood to leave, nearly walking into Harry Potter, who was lingering outside the door.
“Ah, Mr Potter,” I could hear her singsong voice exclaim behind me. “Here for your detention?”