Jack Murphy, "Beatles PhD" Credit: John Sturdy

Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Jack Murphy, “Beatles PhD.”

“I have a bit of an obsessive streak to my personality, and the Beatles are a band that rewards obsessive listening. There are all sorts of little nuggets buried that you didn’t hear the first 99 times, but the 100th time, you hear them. By the time I was in college, I was a full-on Beatles completist. I had given myself, like, a Beatles PhD. After college, I applied to teach at Saint Gregory the Great at Ashland and Bryn Mawr in Andersonville. It was basically a charter high school within the archdiocese, and the administration was so incompetent. They had just fired all the teachers and left only one nun, Sister Mary. The yearbook that year had all these bitter messages: “After working here for 25 years and being told I’m no longer capable of using technology . . . ” 

“Sister Mary was behind the front desk when I handed her my resumé, and she put it on top of the pile because she liked me for some reason, so that’s how I got hired. Three weeks before the school year started, we’re sitting in this office, me and Sister Mary and two other new teachers, and it was like, “Who’s gonna teach American history? How about journalism?” I said, “Well, if you need a Beatles class, I’m your man.” She says, “Will you have time to prepare it?” I said, “Sister Mary, I’ve been preparing for this class my entire life.” I taught it every year until the school closed three years later.

“They called it Music Appreciation, but that was bullshit. It was Beatles class. It was ridiculous and awesome. The kids had Beatles class as much as they had math class. We started with Please Please Me and went all the way through to Abbey Road. I’d sit in my cold little apartment watching the Bulls game on mute and burning 30 copies of Rubber Soul, 30 copies of Revolver.

“The kids were not happy at first. They couldn’t believe we were going to spend a whole year on this one band that they’d either never heard of or only knew from a Target commercial or something. I’d ask, “Do you know what city or country the Beatles are from?,” and one kid said, “Orlando?”

“But right away, they really got into it. The first year, there was a Christmas assembly, and we had karaoke. These three guys who were seniors, so cool, so tough, were singing “Eleanor Rigby” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The other teachers were like, “What the hell?”

“On the last day of the last year, as part of their final, they had to come up with a playlist of the most important Beatles songs. All of the kids wrote their playlists on the chalkboards around the room. The bell rang and the kids left, and I closed the lights and closed the door, and I left.

“Afterward I was so sad that I just started writing poems about the Beatles. Now those poems are a book, illustrated by my good friend Melanie Plank, and it’s dedicated to Sister Mary. Maybe one day some other school will let me do an after-school enrichment Beatles class. But it’ll never be like that again. Right now I teach writing and American lit at Truman Middle College. I love that too. But it’s not quite the White Album.”