Paul McCartney’s story about how he came up with the lyrics to Let It Be had everyone in the country in tears. As he told James Corden on Carpool Karaoke recently, he was worried about the future and during a fitful night’s sleep, he dreamed of his late mother, who told him to just let it be. Paul dropped that bombshell and then cracked a joke about wearing a mustache disguise. And that episode of Carpool Karaoke became an overnight sensation.
“I laughed!” everyone said.
“I cried!” other people said.
“I got a stress headache and my IBS flared up!” I said.
Aaaaand the room falls silent.
I’m not the only one who becomes anxious when hearing a song whose lyrics literally translate to Don’t Be Anxious. I am guessing the other members of the 1974 Hubbard High School A’ Capella Choir have the same reaction.
The choir director at my high school during my freshman and sophomore years was Mr. Pat. I’m not going to use his real, full name because I understand he owns a lot of guns now. But even when a conductor’s baton and a gradebook were his most lethal weapons, he was the scariest teacher we loved.
And we did love him. He threw temper tantrums, he berated us when we were at our most fragile, yelled at us, hurled insults at us knowing full well that our acne was wreaking havoc with our self-esteem, made us sing alone in front of the entire choir to smoke out “that flat alto,” and threatened us with expulsion or worse: a B in an elective.
He treated us like his unpaid staff. He made us run errands for him. We considered it an honor if he asked us to go to the office to check his mailbox. He once reamed me out for a full six minutes in front of the entire choir for the way I wrapped a package he wanted to be mailed. The tirade ended with him screaming, “Haven’t you ever mailed a package before?”
“No. I haven’t. I’m 16. Who am I going to send a package to?” I said. And that, of course, enraged him even more.
I never figured out why he was a high school teacher when he could have been training new FBI agents in the art of weaponry at Quantico. (I bet they would have known how to properly use strapping tape and brown paper.) Teaching kids 15 through 18 in a public school is a major test of patience even for a calm person. It had to be quite the struggle for a man like Mr. Pat.
That was never more evident than when the choir took on Let It Be. We got to sing a Beatles song! A really good Beatles song! We were hip! We were cutting edge! Our choir director was the best! How cool were we?
Not very, as it turns out. Because we couldn’t for the life of us learn the words. I don’t know much about Paul McCartney’s mom or how much detail she went into in this vision or whether she tended to run off at the mouth, repeating phrases in a very willy-nilly fashion with no pattern to follow, but the song that he wrote is very hard to learn.
We studied the lyrics to death, but when on the risers singing it, we couldn’t remember which line came next. When we were supposed to sing “There will be an answer” we sang “Whisper words of wisdom.” And when we were supposed to sing “Whisper words of wisdom” we sang “Shine on ’til tomorrow.” And sometimes we sang “Whisper on tomor-borough” or some blurry version, with the sopranos slurring their words in the hopes that Mr. Pat wouldn’t notice, and the altos raising their hands to be sent to the nurse.
Mr. Pat was having none of it. He was very big on articulation. And perfection. He ranted. He raved. He threatened to not let us sing Let It Be at the concert.
Finally he threw down the gauntlet. He was going to test us on the lyrics. We were to come to choir on Monday with a number 2 pencil. We were going to write down every word to Let It Be in the correct order, line for line, on a piece of paper and it better be 100 percent perfect or we were as good as dead. It was Mr. Pat’s harshest act in all the time we’d known him. A test? In choir? We didn’t know that writing utensils were even allowed in choir. We knew that if we didn’t pass that test, something dreadful would happen. We had never seen Mr. Pat so frustrated with us. The wrong outcome of this test could push him right over some invisible edge. We couldn’t imagine what that would look like or mean to us. We were terrified.
But we were teenagers. So while we left the choir room that day shaking in our platforms and bell bottoms, the terror started to wear off as soon as we got to our lockers. By the time we got home we had forgotten all about Mr. Pat, Let It Be, pencils, and words.
A part of me thought he wouldn’t actually go through with it. So imagine my surprise on Monday when I walked into the choir room and it was empty except for Mr. Pat. “Go to the cafeteria. For the test.”
Dang it. We had to sit one per table end, because Mr. Pat didn’t trust us not to cheat. He was right. I would have committed a felony and a mortal sin to get the lyrics of that song. I couldn’t remember what was going to happen if we didn’t all pass, but I knew it was worse than juvy or purgatory.
I looked around the cafeteria, and took some solace in seeing the panic on the sheet-white faces of Lisa and Nancy. Excellent, I thought. They don’t know them either. I’d never felt such support and camaraderie, knowing I wasn’t the only one who was going to die that day. Also I knew that if I was the only one to fail, before he killed me, Mr. Pat would parade me through the music wing on a pole, reading aloud my comically incorrect lyrics.
The surprise ending to this story is that Mr. Pat collected our papers, we all shuffled to our next class, and we never heard another word about it. No one got punished and the only thing murdered were the words to Let It Be, which we did sing at the concert later that month, garbling and mangling the lyrics to the point where even Pearl Jam would have been like, “Really? What are you saying?” But our audience didn’t care because they were our parents. And we were up there with perfect posture, our bangs curled, blouses and shirts tucked in, and singing a song that was still on the radio. Mr. Pat was silent.
It’s possible that the principal caught wind of what Mr. Pat was planning as punishment and forbade it. (That’s a scary thought, seeing as our assistant principal regularly beat the backsides of kids with a big wooden paddle with holes drilled in it, without any blowback from anyone.) Or maybe one of the choir parents complained that testing students on lyrics to a song written by a guy who smokes pot and experimented with acid and Eastern religions is not school policy. Or, Mr. Pat figured out he had cornered himself and couldn’t really murder a bunch of sophomores in cold blood without some serious consequences. I mean, really, he probably could have gotten fired.
I think we broke him.
When Sir Paul and James Corden were singing their hearts out in the car, it all came back to me. I worried that James Corden wouldn’t know the words, because even though he prepares for his show like a beast, they are very, very hard to learn. And I thought I detected a slight hesitation from Paul right before “Shine on ’til tomorrow” but I can’t say for sure. I hope Mr. Pat was watching. Without his guns.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Diane writes about using humor to cope with things in life that suck. Read more of her Just Humor Me columns here. Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter to get new blog post notifications. And if you like her blog, you’ll love her books, Home Sweet Homes: How Bundt Cakes, Bubble Wrap, and My Accent Helped Me Survive Nine Moves and Great-Grandma Is on Twitter and Other Signs the Rapture Is Near.