Listen. Do you want to know a secret? I’m going to teach you something important. I’m going to teach you how to get what you want. Are you ready? Say it out loud but pretend you’re joking.
When I got hired at St. Gregory the Great HS, the diocese had just unceremoniously fired the entire administration and staff. They left only Sister Mary, the wise old nun who embodied the school more than any other living soul, to assign the entire new staff classes to teach.
“What about Advanced Comp, Jack?” she asked me. “Can you teach that? Can you do English 3 and 4, Gabe?” We were in her small office, trying to get things straight. It was almost September. We were just about done.
“And, well, ya know—“ I said. “If you ever need a Beatles class, I’m your man.” I was joking but not really. The staff already knew I loved the Beatles because I’d brought my Beatles lunch box on the first day of orientation. The new gym teacher, Coach O, who looked more like a prison guard with his shaved head and thick muscles, sat next to me in the lunch room that first afternoon and rolled up his sleeves to reveal Beatle tattoos running up his arm. I felt like I was coming home.
On the Friday before school was to begin, Sister Mary rode the elevator to the third floor with me.
“Jack, we’ve had a scheduling catastrophe.” She was always using words like catastrophe and meltdown. “Could you teach that Beatles class? Will you have enough time to prepare it?” I almost burst out laughing. “Sister Mary,” I said, “I’ve been preparing for this class my entire life.”
My family loves the Beatles, of course. I remember The White Album from when I was six, remember dancing in my kitchen with my cousins to ob la di, remember asking who Bungalow Bill was. “It’s just a joke,” my uncle told me. “They’re just joking.” I remember Back in the USSR was our official Friday night pizza making music. I’d poke holes in the dough with a fork to the beat.
Beatles class met every day for the entire year for four years. Officially, the schedule called it Music Appreciation but that was bullshit. It was Beatles class.
The administration was into it, but the students would be tougher. I didn’t know any of them and they didn’t know me. I can only imagine what these kids, 18 years old some of them, with their pics and their fros or weaves and dreads oh, why am I doing this? Why the code words? You know what I mean, they looked different than me, they were tough, and they regarded me with suspicion. And I can’t really blame them to be honest because, like I said,all their teachers had just been fired, and in their place stood this 21 year old white kid in a blazer and tie talking about a band of weirdos from the 60s with funny haircuts and funnier accents. “Beatles?” I can still remember David spitting the first day of class. “Beatles? The whole year?”
“Yup!” I said cheerily. “Now, who can tell me the difference between an acoustic and electric guitar?”
The students had barely even heard of the Beatles. I gave a pretest, just to see what they knew. How many members are in the Beatles? I asked. A million. Do you know any of their songs? NO! Can you name the city or country the Beatles are from? A student named Zeeshawn wrote: Orlando, Florida.
The sheets were mostly returned blank.
But it changed when we got to the music. The first album is Please Please Me, and the first track is I Saw Her Standing There. And I could see it in their faces right away, right from the count in, this coldness giving way. All right, they seemed to be nodding, all right.
“I like John,” David said after we listened to the whole thing. “He always yellin’.”
This is how Beatles class worked: our school was on a modified block schedule, which meant I saw the kids three days a week for 40 minutes and one day a week, Thursdays, for 80 minutes. We spent two weeks on each album. Most days weren’t so much different from a history or English class—we’d watch interviews, do lyric analysis, learn about Vietnam, listen to influences or peers, early R and B, Elvis, Dylan, the Stones. And it wasn’t a blow-off class, either there were quizzes and tests and papers and projects. On the first Thursday, though, we’d listen to the entire new album straight through. They’d follow along with a packet of song lyrics I’d printed out and jot down first impressions.
The next Thursday would be a discussion of that album. The students were responsible for writing journal entries and responding to specific questions for every song of the album. “Listen to the solo in Taxman five times in a row,” I might ask, “and explain how the texture fits with the subject of the song.”
I can’t tell you how many Wednesday nights I stayed up late burning disc after disc, album by album, in flagrant disregard of US copyright law, so each kid could have a copy to listen to and study at home. You don’t love I’m Only Sleeping after hearing it once or twice, I figured; You need 100 listens to really get it. When my mother worried I’d get the school in trouble, I told her all teachers are renegades at heart.
And it was worth it. The kids really hadn’t heard the songs before, save for the occasional Target ad, and so they started the class as though it were actually 1963. They were just as
oblivious about Strawberry Fields and Here Comes the Sun and Mark David Chapman as those kids screaming at the Ed Sullivan Show were. It was almost like a sociological experiment, like I was an anthropologist who’d stumbled upon some tribe deep in the rain forest who’d never seen an automobile or running water. These kids hadn’t heard Hey Jude, for God’s sake. And I’d tell them sometimes how odd that was, how seemingly everyone in the world had heard this song, had heard it a million times at least, and they’d just shrug at me and I’d start the song and watch them hear it for the first time. And my heart would fill with joy when the other teachers told me the kids were singing the na-na-na-na’s during gym class or painting Beatle portraits in art.
And through them, I heard the songs new again.
You’re probably sick of Let It Be I was, too but when you listen to it with a room full of 17 year-olds hearing it for the first time, it’s like: pin drop. I’ve listened to Blackbird more times than any sane individual should, but in Beatles class, it was like: Goosebumps.
I got to see Paul’s charms work on a new generation. “Ahh, I am totally in love with this song and how Paul expresses his love for this Michelle chick, super jealous,” one girl wrote.
I had stopped hearing the lyrics to a lot of the songs, having heard them so many millions of times before. But the kids always heard them. Run For Your Life begins, “Well, I’d rather see ya dead little girl than to be with another man.” One girl wrote in her response, “Wow, this song is crazy. It seems like a girl cheated on the Beatles and they want to kill her. This song kind of scares me.” The class was genuinely horrified the same person could write In My Life, which they found lovely, and a song so openly condoning domestic abuse. “They’re just joking,” I’d tell them. “It’s just a joke. I think.”
They thought about the songs in ways I never had.
“They like the girls much more in this album,” one girl wrote of Rubber Soul. “They don’t just have crushes anymore.”
Of the song Within You, Without You, a student wrote simply, “This song is not better than Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Two best friends, Steph and Rachel, each developed crushes on 1966 Paul and 1968 John respectively and were shocked, eventually angry, even a little bit enraged, that the other didn’t feel the same way.
Others grew defensive of Ringo.
“Q. Who in your opinion is the most important Beatle? A. Ringo. Cause Ringo keep the beat and he keep the peace.”
After listening to one of Ringo’s tracks on the White Album, What Goes On, I made a dismissive joke.
“And now back to our regularly scheduled programming,” I said.
“Mr. Murphy!” Mustafa said and waited a beat. “Why did you say that!? Because it was Ringo?? Mr. Murphy!”
I had to break the news to them about John. They didn’t know. I always told them on the anniversary of his death. We’d watch Howard Cosell tell the world on Monday Night Football and the room would get quiet and still.
“Why would someone want to kill John Lennon?” a boy named Eric asked.
We brought Sister Mary in to talk about the Beatles being bigger than Jesus. “For one thing, they were!” she laughed. “And for another, since when does Jesus care about being popular? That’s not his thing.”
We watched the entire Anthology, and we listened to every song. The Huffington Post once made a big deal about a “newly discovered” Beatles song, never before heard. But Beatles class had heard it. Beatles class knew all about Revolution Take 20.
And were there times I went perhaps a little overboard? Well, yes. “Most days,” I’d explain to them, “you have a dedicated and responsible Music Appreciation teachers. Some days, however, you have a Beatles weirdo. Today is one of those days.” I said something like that the day we watched a 28 minute YouTube video that was nothing but take after take of Strawberry Fields Forever. We heard it from the time it was basically unrecognizable, just a few chords and muttered words as John played into a tape recorder in his bedroom. The song slowly revealed itself, take after take, day after day, week after week, month after month. And the kids stayed with it as though hypnotized. “A song doesn’t appear like magic from the sky,” a boy wrote later that week. “You have to go out and grab it.”
When we discussed the Paul is Dead stuff, their eyes would grow wide. We’d listen to the songs backwards and find the clues on the album covers and in the lyrics until they slowly grew disappointed. One kid rose his hand. “This is all pretty half-baked, Mr. Murphy,” he said.
The class was the entire year, so we really got to stretch out. We watched all the movies and the episodes of the Simpsons they guest starred on. We watched the Rutles and I knew which students had been paying the most attention in class by who laughed the loudest. We even watched Across the Universe, which one girl claimed was better than Help!—though I think she said it just to hurt me. One student wrote he went home and listened to the real tracks that night and was “greatly relieved.”
We tweeted at Yoko, whom they hated immediately, even against my pleadings and arguments she wasn’t responsible, or solely responsible, for the breakup. They hated Yoko before they even knew her name. Just something about her, I guess.
I coached the girls’ basketball team, and many of the players were in the class, as well. Before home games, during warmups, they’d blast Girl, from Rubber Soul, through the gym. I’m quite sure the Greyhounds were the only team in basketball history to conduct layup lines to that song. I think that’s why they picked it; Anyone can play Twist and Shout they wanted a deeper cut. I remember the way they’d suck their breath in with the chorus while standing around in the layup line.
Three or four kids got added in the middle of the year, and I told them they had a lot to catch up on.
“Oh, we know as much as they do,” one kid said, referring to the rest of the class. They exploded.
“Do you know who Aunt Mimi is?” one girl demanded.
“What songs did George write on Revolver?” another boy shouted.
“We’ve seen John naked!” a girl yelped.
I ran to close the door.
“I told you guys not to tell anyone I showed you those pictures!”
I’d always laugh whenever I read YouTube comments under Miley Cyrus videos or editorials in the paper the day after the Grammys complaining about the kids these days who just don’t appreciate the good stuff, who listen to this trash when they could be listening to the golden era of music the golden era being whenever the adult had gone through puberty. Really? I’d think. Have you tried playing it for them? Because my kids adore Eleanor Rigby and probably know more about Brian Epstein than you ever did.
They’d laugh their heads off when I showed them Lucy getting drunk on Vitameatavegamin and squirm in their seats with delight when we watched the Marx Brothers before A Hard Days Night. I brought in a Polaroid camera and they were more impressed by it than any Apple product in their pocket.
I didn’t try to convince them that their pop culture is bad, mostly because it’s mine, too. I just tried to contextualize this music, to give it a place, to show them why it’s good. At lunch time or during the passing periods, I’d let them be the expert, teach me about Kanye or Frank Ocean. The school only had about 100 kids total, and so by the 4th time I taught the class, way more than half of the students had taken it. Eventually, talking about a sitar at lunch was almost as common as auto tune. Research a new recording technique and compare it to a technique developed by the Beatles, I’d assign. It’s okay to like both, I’d tell them, I do.
It wasn’t always perfect. It wasn’t a made-for-tv special. I gave detentions to kids doing other homework while we were listening to a song or for falling asleep during Yellow Submarine. I once thought a group of students was standing around a desk examining an old record sleeve only to discover they had become fascinated by a flamin’ hot cheeto the shape of a penis.
There were days the kids didn’t feel like talking about the Beatles again. They grew tired of the early lovey dovey stuff and uniformly despised Magical Mystery Tour. They considered I Am the Walrus incomprehensible and ridiculous. And I wasn’t perfect, either, had days when I was tired or in a bad mood, checked Facebook while they took tests, skimmed their answers and wrote generic comments when basketball games took up the entire night. But I so obviously loved it and wanted them to love it, too and more than that, more than loving the Beatles, I wanted them to love anything that way, to find something in their lives that gave them the kind of joy the Beatles had brought me. Do you know how many people go their whole lives without finding something to be obsessed with? I’d tell them. Don’t be like them.
On the day in May we listened to Abbey Road, the very last album, I always told them the same thing that I’ve been jealous of you the entire year you still had new Beatles music to look forward to and experience for the first time. I told them that in some ways it’s a sad day because by the end of the period there will never be a new Beatles song to listen to, no more albums to take home and load into your iPods. But even though the songs will stay the same, I said, you’ll keep changing. Penny Lane will sound different when you move away from home and Here, There, and Everywhere will sound new again on the day you get married. You can take the music with you wherever you go and find whatever meaning from the songs you need at that moment, in that place.
And a couple would cry when we got to The End because it’s just so beautiful, the song and the journey. When that happened, I’d think about Sister Mary and the “scheduling catastrophe” she’d obviously invented to make room for the class because she knew this was something important, even if it wouldn’t help the kids on some test or resume, that there are things in the world a person should know about because they’re beautiful and true and impossible to replace and that if there’s no room in a school for a class like that then maybe that’s a school that’s lost its way, that’s forgotten its purpose, that’s missing the point.
Beatles class was the last class I taught before the school was shut down for good, the last final on the last day St. Greg’s existed. Part of their assignment had been to create a 14track album that would explain who the Beatles were to a person who’d never heard them and then give it to a person who never had. Before we left, each student wrote out his or her list on the chalkboards around the room until they were completely covered, until you could barely see past the words, until every last inch was drawn over by a song.
I left the room like that the last time I walked out. I like to think the songs are still there. I like to think they’ll never be erased.
Jack Murphy is a writer and teacher in Chicago. His chapbook of flash fiction and poetry, My Apartment in Chicago, can be found atJackMurphyChicago.com.