It’s Sunday night and I’m listening to Sara Bareilles sing the part of Mary Magdalene with sweet perfection.
We come to the song we’ve all waited for. Wait for it. Wait for it. No wait. That’s another musical. Oh honey, she starts singing and all I can hear is, (“I never thought it’d come to this. What’s it all about?”), the beautiful voice of my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Neal, singing every word as she did so often in our class.
Mrs. Neal had an incredible voice and a love of the play’s soundtrack. She taught this Jewish girl to learn to love a song about Jesus.
Sara Bareilles Singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” live
You see, it didn’t matter that she was the first black teacher at our school, and it didn’t matter that she was amazingly young. It just mattered that she was putting music in my soul. Feeding it, like my Mama did at home. I thrived in her classroom and I thrived at home.
Two women, who maybe met once or twice would have an incredible influence on the structure of my love of music.
I’ve thought so often of Mrs. Neal throughout the last forty six years. What and where was she? Before the days of computers and social media there wasn’t a way to look. When social media became available, I didn’t think of her as often and maybe tried once in a while to no avail. I never knew her first name.
I knew her husband’s name. Oh man, did she talk about him in class. We knew she loved him a lot.
So, back to tonight. Easter Sunday, watching, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, and hearing that song. Feeling the way I felt in fifth grade. Free and uninhibited. Free to sing, and sing loudly. That’s how Mrs. Neal taught us to be. How my Mother taught me to be.
So, after Sara was done singing, there was an overwhelming ovation. As well as a filling up of my heart. I had to look for Mrs. Neal again.
This time I saw Carey Neal’s name on FB. Aha! I knew it! I’d found the beloved husband! Let me look though his friends to see if I could find her name. I couldn’t. I did find a younger Mr. Neal. Maybe it was his Mom. I wrote him this message:
Hi I’m trying to find an old teacher of mine, who I think may have been your Mom. Did she teach at Green school in the 70’s? What’s her first name? I know it sounds crazy but I’m watching Jesus Christ Superstar live and she used to play us that soundtrack and sing with it constantly.
OMG, he wrote me back almost as fast as I’d written. Some small talk went on back and forth. In it, he’d used the words: She was. I asked, not breathing, yet knowing the answer, ‘You said was. Is she not alive?’ ‘No’, he answered. ‘She died too young. About twenty five years ago from breast cancer.’
I went on to tell him what she meant to me, and that I could hear her in my head when the song was being sung tonight. He said they were watching too.
I wondered to myself, jealously, how many times had she sung that to him?
It hurt to hear of her fate, and that the gift of a long life was not to be for Mrs. Neal. But she passed on her love of music, and on this night, her Son knows someone out there heard his Mom’s voice clearly in her head, and she was alive once again for a few minutes.
On this night Jesus Christ rose in the ears of a Jewish woman during Passover, and in the hearts of two strangers, to remember a woman who gave us both the gift of song.
Bless you Mrs. Neal RIP