Although that dessert from the kitchen may have been awesome, what Willow thought wasn’t awesome was sitting through the parent-teacher meetings with her mom a week later. They sat in the Chancellor’s office just as they had been sitting during their first visit with Mr. Puterschmidt.
“We’re just concerned because Willow is falling behind the other students,” the Chancellor explained to Willow’s mom. “We’ve placed her in a series of classes that will provide her with more attention and hopefully, she’ll be able to catch up.”
“Hopefully?” asked Willow’s mom. “You mean you don’t know?”
“Oh, certainly, certainly,” sputtered the Chancellor. “What I mean to say is that we have it all under control and Willow should be caught up in no time.”
“What can I do to help?” asked her mom, not sounding reassured by the Chancellor’s clarification.
“Uh, to be honest, Ms. Carter,” replied the Chancellor. “We’re not sure there’s anything you can do. She’s certainly doing well enough in all of her other classes - that is, all those that don’t require the use of a wand. It’s just that in Willow’s case, the bond between wand and witch is not developing as quickly as we would like.”
“Could there be something wrong with her wand?” her mom asked. “We could go back to Narrowway and get a new one.”
“I wouldn’t think so,” said the Chancellor. “Miss Chantrix knows wands and it’s highly improbable that she made an error.”
“So what is it, then?” asked Willow’s mom. There was a pause in the conversation. It was obvious to Willow that the Chancellor was thinking about how he wanted to answer that question.
“We’re not exactly sure, Ms. Carter,” he said. “It’s not unusual to have two or three students who require some extra help each year, but they usually catch up by the holiday break. This year, we have quite a few more and we are looking to both Mysticism and Numerology to figure it out. Needless to say, we’re doing everything we can do.”
“How many more?” asked Willow’s mom, ignoring the two subjects she didn’t recognize.
“We have seven this year, although those numbers should decrease before we get to Thanksgiving.”
“So a fifth of your first year students are having difficulty, and you don’t know why?” said Willow’s mom. Willow could hear by the tone of her voice that her mom was getting upset.
“Well, I can’t do the math in my head,” the Chancellor said. “But yes, it’s certainly more than we usually have and we are continuing to work with the students. As I’ve indicated, I’m sure we’ll have this resolved and everyone back up to speed by Christmas.”
“And if you don’t?” asked Willow’s mom.
“Please, Ms. Carter,” said the Chancellor. “It’s inconceivable that magical students will still have trouble that far into the school year. In the three hundred year history of Gampton Hall no child has ever been expelled for failure to pass the end of year tests and I don’t see that happening this time. If you’ll just be patient, I’m sure we’ll get to the root of the problem and everyone will be right as rain in no time.”
“It was like talking to a politician,” fumed her mom on the way home from the conference. “I can’t believe they don’t have any idea why your wand isn’t working the way it should.” Without waiting for Willow to say anything, her mom continued venting. “Inconceivable?...what’s inconceivable is them not knowing how to educate kids. You should have seen how defensive he got when I told him how miserable your Nomaj Studies teacher is...hemming and hawing. You would think it was his mother.”
“It is his mother, mom,” said Willow.
“Oh, great,” her mom said. Willow could see her roll her eyes. “Now we get to deal with nepotism too?”
“What’s nepotism?” Willow asked.
“It’s where you give special privileges - or jobs - to your relatives instead of basing it on merit,” fumed her mom. “It’s considered unethical in the real world.”
“My world’s real,” said Willow.
There was silence for a moment as her mom thought about what she had just said. “I’m sorry Willow,” she said. “I know it’s real. I’m just so...I just wish there was something I could do to help, but I feel so...useless.”
“I don’t think you’re useless mom,” Willow said. “You help me all the time. You helped me reach out to Lef.”
“Thanks Willow. You know, it’s ironic, but I feel more involved in your schoolwork and interests now than when you were in the nomaj world. I just can’t help but wonder if there is something I could be doing to help you. I think we’ll pay a visit to the wand store in Narrowway over Christmas break to talk to the owner. What do you think?”
“Besides, I think I want to go back and get that Granger purse I passed on when we went in August.”
After a while of driving quietly, her mom changed the subject. “I wonder what they did before wands?” she asked out loud.
“What are you talking about?” Willow said.
“Wands,” her mom replied. “They don’t create magic, right? A wand without a mage is just a stick. If I were to pick one up, it would act and feel just like a stick. But in the hand of a mage, it acts like an amplifier or antenna to make you more powerful. What did mages use before they had wands?”
“I suppose the same thing I did,” said Willow. “I used my hair. But why does that matter? Willow asked. “We all use wands now.”
“Just wondering,” said her mom.
Willow and Lef were watching the Quidditch game on the Saturday before Thanksgiving between Suncorn and Featherpenny. They stayed until the score was two hundred to forty in Suncorn’s favor when then decided that Lily wasn’t going to be able to beat them by catching the snitch.
“Do you want to see the Murgatroyd homeroom?” Lef asked her while the snitch continued to elude both seekers.
“Sure,” replied Willow and they headed up to the school. They went to the bottom of the main stairs - two floors below the entrance level and they were walking down the hall toward the Murgatroyd homeroom when they heard sniffling in one of the rooms.
“Is that an animal?” Willow whispered.
“It sounds like crying” Lef replied. They approached the door and opened it slowly. Willow was surprised to see Sib at one of the potions tables, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. Seeing them, he yelled.
“Do you want to make fun of me like everyone else?” he hollered. “Just leave me alone!” Willow and Lef were so shocked, they backed away and closed the door without a word.
“We should go,” whispered Lef.
What would I have done last year? Walked away...or something else? Willow asked herself. Now I need to do what I should have done then...
“No, we shouldn’t.” Willow took Lef’s hand and they went back into the potions lab. Willow walked over to the table where Sib was sitting and took a seat. She looked right at him.
“No, Sib,” Willow said. “Lef and I aren’t going away. I had trouble with bullying in my nomaj school and I know you need some friends. We’re all in the same situation here and it’s about time we stuck together.”
While Sib sat next to them, wiping his eyes, Willow asked Lef to tell her about the Murgatroyd homeroom.
“Well, you would think it would be a dungeon like these Alchemy rooms,” Lef explained. “But it actually has windows and a huge balcony along the cliff that looks out over the river rapids. It’s quite beautiful. It’s smaller than your Hammersmith tower room, but it’s really cozy with the fireplaces going. There’s only about thirty of us, so everyone has plenty of room.”
“The Featherpenny tower is small,” said Sib, who had stopped crying. “And it looks out over the river rapids too...except from six stories higher. My house has a game where they spit off their balcony and try to have it land on the Murgatroyd balcony.” He looked at Lef. “I ain’t playing it anymore.”
“It’s okay,” said Lef. “The Murgatroyds put up a water-repellent charm around the balcony to protect us from getting soaked from the spray of the rapids. It works against rain - and spit too, so we can sit out there whenever we want.”
“Clever,” said Willow.
“Now if you could just get in the kitchen,” said Sib. “I heard Incheon say he knew the way in since he’s in Suncorn, and their homeroom is right next door.”
“We know the way in,” said Lef.
“Then what are we waitin’ for?” asked Sib. Willow noticed that he smiled for the first time since she had known him.
By Thanksgiving at least a part of what the Chancellor had said in the parent-teacher meeting was true. There were only five students left in remedial lessons. Along with Willow were Lily and Sib from Featherpenny, Lef from Murgatroyd, and Incheon from Suncorn. On the day before Thanksgiving break, their Remedial Alchemy teacher, Mrs. Black, let them have a free period. Willow thought it was more because she wasn’t having any success with them rather than out of goodwill.
The five of them sat in the back of the classroom. Sib and Incheon were playing a magical card game while Willow and Lef were playing wizard chess on Lef’s set. Lily was digging into a book on Quidditch in preparation for her last match, coming up in another two weeks. The latest two students to go back to regular lessons from the Remedial Alchemy class were the two Suncorn boys who had been in a group with Lef.
“At least I don’t have to listen to any more fart jokes,” Lef said, after Willow called for her knight to take Lef’s bishop.
“Did someone say fart jokes?” asked Incheon. “Hey, Sib, why did the cockatrice cross the road?”
“Dunno,” said Sib. “Why?”
Incheon stuck out his tongue and blew a raspberry, “pthhbbbbbbb!”
Laughing, Sib said, “good one! What’s the difference between a wizard and a warlock?” Incheon shrugged his shoulders.
Lef just shook her head and declared checkmate on Willow for the second time in a row.
“Why is it that only kids that were unsorted are in remedial lessons?” Willow asked.
“Lily’s in remedial lessons,” Sib said.
“Yeah, for how much longer?” Willow questioned, looking over at Lily, whose cheeks were flushed.
“She said I could probably go back to regular classes after Winter break.” Lily answered, seeming to shrink under the four pairs of staring eyes. Willow brought their attention back.
“I think being unsorted has something to do with why we can’t do magic,” Willow said to them. “Maybe we were sorted. Maybe we’re the fifth house.”
“You heard the teachers, there is no fifth house.” Lef answered.
“As far as they know, but Mr. Zolock said that there was a fire that destroyed the records from the first days of the school. Maybe there was something in there. If only I could remember what the hat said about it.”
“An ancient house that once was part; of our school's founding shall restart. Of old vacated, reinstated; to get back what is at heart,” recited Incheon, who hadn’t looked up from his cards.
The rest of them were staring at him; he had been reciting the hat’s song from memory.
“What?” he said, looking around at them. “I have an audiographic memory.” The other four still had blank looks on their faces. “I can remember things that people say to me, plays, songs, speeches - you know, that sort of stuff - word for word. I know Robilard’s Warlock Words of Wisdom too. Want to hear them?”
“Maybe later.” Sib responded. “What about the rest of the hat speech?”
“That house shall use the ancient ways; to find the path that once was blazed; by ancient ones, the first to come; to make whole what has decayed,” Incheon finished.
“I think that’s it,” said Willow. “We need to find the path that once was blazed. After all, the hat did call us ‘Pathfinders’.”
“But where do we start looking?” said Incheon.
“The song talked about ancient ones - the first to come,” said Willow “That must mean the founders of the school. I think we should look to see what’s in the archives.” They decided to go to the library during lunch after the Thanksgiving break to see what they could find.
“Awesome,” said Incheon in a sarcastic voice. “More homework.”
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