Raising voices in service to something bigger

Raising voices in service to something bigger

With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, in my elementary school, the halls were alive with the sound of music.

That’s halls, not hills. Just wanted to make sure you got the pun.

We sang in church … we sang in class … we sang in the cafeteria … once, we even sang on the playground. This was on the Monday morning after “Hey Jude” premiered on national – or was it global? – television, and four of us gathered around the trash barrel down by the horses’ hitching post and blended our voices in the now immortal and epic, “Na-na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na” coda.

That was 1968. By then, we’d already been singing for five years.

I fear, perhaps, that over the course of the 30-plus years these epistles have been appearing in print, that I might have given a slightly exaggerated impression of parochial discipline, that my descriptions of nuns and their steel rulers rapping knuckles and priests and their impossibly strict standards for altar boys may have been, well, a trifle over the top in terms of journalistic accuracy.

Then again, there’s an old-fashioned newspaper saying that goes something like, “Never let facts get in the way of a good story.”

Let’s face it.

No one wants to read something boring. That’s death. Writers would rather scribble shopping lists than have their words ignored.

We live in a new landscape these days and I understand its shifting terrain and fully comprehend the click-bait mentality that foments the hair-pulling anxieties that plague big-time bosses everywhere.

But I will stake my reputation on this simple, unshakeable truth: If your writing can’t attract readers, you’d be better off selling ads.

Lower-case “catholic,” to get us back to school, means universal and that’s how I remember my days as a student. We learned a lot about everything, including theology, but that was only a part of it.

Take physical education. We didn’t have gym class, per se, probably because we didn’t have a gym, but that didn’t preclude our exposure to strengthening our bodies. There were no organized team sports, either, but there were recesses at 10:15 and after lunch, which meant that we were always involved in some kind of competition – football or kickball or some variant of baseball – and those games were played on asphalt, meaning that it could hurt.

A lot.

Sometimes, if the weather was benign and the teacher was in a good mood, we’d be released for another 10 minutes or so in the afternoon, which was another chance to run off some energy.

And then there was something called isometrics. It was a late-Sixties fad, akin to fondue parties, with the goal of exercising without any equipment, just various parts of the body.

Here’s an example you can try right now: Press your palms together, with your fingers touching your wrists, in sort of an inverse prayer position. Push them against each other for a minute, keeping up the pressure, then relax. After 30 seconds, do it again.

And again … and again.

But what we did mostly was sing. I don’t recall anything resembling tryouts. It was just assumed everyone could do it.

That was an assumption bordering on the miraculous, I suppose, but as a school function, it helped define the word “universal.”

We attended Mass every morning without fail and that served as a kind of vocal tune-up for whatever lay in store for the rest of the day. Sometimes, we got ready for a visit from some distinguished guest, an alumna who had gone into the nunnery, for example.

I still remember the words we learned:

“You’re as welcome as the flowers in May,

and we love you in the same old way.

We’ve been waiting for you day by day:

You’re as welcome as the flowers in May.”

Add in some background harmonies and some echoed phrases and we were ready to sign a record deal on the spot. Then there were concerts for the public, something called “hootenannies,” and we performed an eclectic selection of secular songs, including Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the folk standard “Lemon Tree” and, interestingly, “Daydream Believer,” by the Monkees, always a hit.

I was stunned by a lot of what awaited me when I matriculated from parochial to public school, but nothing amazed me more than something known as “choir,” which was an after-school activity that involved only a select few students, all of whom had to pass a series of auditions in order to qualify for inclusion in the club.

That seemed oddly non-universal.

Singing then became something more private to me as I stood before the bedroom mirror, using a hairbrush for a microphone, belting out the words to “Born to Be Wild” as the radio blasted.

I still sing, after a fashion, even now that whatever vocal skills I once had have long since eroded, but every now and again, it’s good to remember a time when I was just as good as anyone else.

Mike Dewey can be reached at Carolinamiked@aol.com or 6211 Cardinal Drive, New Bern, NC 28560. He invites you to join the fun on his Facebook page, where there’s always music in the air.

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