I was once in a high school production of “Cats.” For three nights, I strapped on a 30-pound costume made of cross-stitched yarn and operatically sang about British cat philosophy to an enormous theatre full of snickering classmates. It was a level of emasculation that sits somewhere in between crying during “50 First Dates” and complete castration. At no point did I particularly feel like I was expressing myself through song—I was more of a plot point to move along Andrew Lloyd Webber’s semi-psychotic, uncomfortably sexual cross-species nightmare.
I have seen rock bottom, where cool goes to die forever. It is “Cats.”
When I came to Temple the following year, I swore to make a bigger commitment to avoid social suicide. I wanted to be cool and suave, maybe grow a beard and get to third base with some girls in my hallway. My talents—singing like a tiny Josh Groban and memorizing movie trivia—had always lent themselves to embarrassing me. I was going to have to get some new hobbies.
However, I ran into Broad Street Line that week. Broad Street Line is Temple’s oldest a cappella group. They had a kiosk at Experience Temple Day—the exact kind of cheesy rah-rah fanfare I typically avoid. Two guys introduced themselves to me, their names were Ron and Josh and they were seniors. Like, 21-year-old seniors. In that moment, I was the first person in history to think a cappella singing was my ticket to the cool table.
A week later, I had auditioned and been accepted into the group—mostly because I can make drum set sounds with my mouth. I was elated to see the email, but it was followed by an immediately familiar feeling.
What have you done, Aaron?
A cappella music infuriates me. It is crass, repetitive, and unforgivably goofy. When I hear that lanky, cheeseball Pentatonix lead singer douse radio hits in stylized riffs, I want to put my fist through my computer screen. This always put me in a sort of outsider box in the a cappella community – and believe me, there is an a cappella community. We have a secret Facebook group. While the rest of Broad Street Line ogled other groups, discussed finer points of arranging for voice or spit nerdy game at visiting singers, I often stood by in a corner with my cynicism. I loved those people, so I was pretty good at keeping a poker face. But, you don’t know how much you appreciate Lil Wayne until you watch a dead ringer for McLovin rap his lyrics Shy-Ronnie-style into a microphone. The genre simply never grew on me.
So, I quit after a short try, right? Wrong. On Saturday, I sang in my final concert with Broad Street Line after four long years. It has forced me to think about my time and the group and face a truth that I hoped to never admit to myself: Joining Broad Street Line was possibly the best decision of my entire life.
After all this time, it’s not about, nor has it ever been about the music. On Saturday, I rapped a Kanye West song backed by a bunch of future choir teachers—it was not any less embarrassing than it was when I was 18. But I was with my friends.
I come from a family so large that I can probably only name a third of my cousins. Still, I have never had a bigger, better family than Broad Street Line. I have sung with more than 30 people that I will remember decades after we lose touch. I have seen some of these guys grow up, get married and hold down real jobs. I have seen others turn from pimple-faced freshmen into confident, hilarious young men. And those guys have seen me at my worst: Singing do’s and da’s in front of people I would normally try to impress—President Obama, for instance.
I’ve always been pretty terrible at following college sports, and even worse at keeping up with college courses. I skulked through a major that I found completely uninspiring just because it was too expensive to switch out of it. My only real connection to Temple University was Broad Street Line. I think those guys should hand me my diploma. No singing, though. Please.
I’m not writing this as a love letter to my guys, because they already know I love them. I’m writing it because I think a lot of kids like me give up their uncool extra-curriculars when they come to college. But you’ll never meet the people you were supposed to meet. If you can sing, you can sing for a reason. The same goes for ballet, juggling, parkour, or whatever super weird thing you’re good at.
If you’re uncool, then you’re uncool. And lying to yourself won’t change that.
Aaron Castro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.