*Author’s note: This piece was written on April 4, 2017, the day Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong died in prison.
Erie, Pennsylvania has been straining, lately.
The Commonwealth is being alarmingly recalcitrant about sending sufficient funds all the way to its northwest corner, as if defying the entropic forces that pull all assets toward the valley is just too much effort, too much of a threat to the homeostasis of those driven to entrench an already archaic class war; as a result, the School District of the City of Erie is in total crisis – closing all but one of the public high schools, losing five thousand students with only the scent of enough loaves and fishes to feed those who remain.
Even the contingent of otherwise safely retired teachers bite their nails, wondering if the time will come when somebody decides to dip into their rightful, guaranteed pensions, that portion of their salary which they deferred for twenty-five to forty interminable years on the promise of that very guarantee.
Mrs. Agnes Diehl doesn’t have to think about any of this. She’s long been dead.
Her daughter, however, just passed away. Today, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong’s life ended in federal prison, her body succumbing to cancer, the disease which often overtakes those who are otherwise hopeless.
Marjorie, a troubled child taken in and adopted by the Diehl family, as accomplice to what would become the stuff of national tabloid news, had managed to cap her life in Erie by participating in the most bizarre crime in the city’s history: the case of the “Pizza bomber.” Details of the morbid scenario, featured on DATELINE NBC this evening, included a frozen body, a bank robbery, and an innocent delivery man whose life came to an end in that bank parking lot in the blazing sun, the bomb strapped to his neck exploding in front of an entire flank of helpless law enforcement officers and medical personnel.
But, Mrs. Diehl had lived a generation before.
She first appeared at Lincoln Elementary School, as a substitute teacher. In those days, substitute teachers paid their dues, and those dues were sure to be rewarded; show up enough times to cover the random classroom, and the offer of a secure, full time position was assured.
I first saw her, seated, at the upright grand piano against the wall, which ran parallel to the teacher’s desk in virtually every classroom at school. She wore perhaps a dark green Chanel styled suit – boxed jacket, small lapels, simple sheath skirt; on another day, a dark blue and black plaid shirtwaist, its full, pleated fabric draping the piano bench. Her lipstick was scarlet, and her hair raven black, classically curled around her ears and neck with the dramatic upward swoop over the forehead which marked a woman of real class who’d come of age in the 1940’s.
It was customary, during the 1960’s, to begin the school day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a silent prayer. But, if the teacher played the piano, there would also be a song. And, this is why I loved Mrs. Diehl.
Well before any of us entered that room in the morning, Mrs. Diehl would already be playing that piano. Full on, with the grandest of gesture, her arms arching and diving from bass to treble, the strains of “America the Beautiful” resounded like a cross between a rousing march and a triumphant anthem. There was nothing, absolutely nothing rudimentary about this woman or the music she made, and the result was utterly infectious. Had we slept restlessly the night before, or endured the screechings of a “We Can Do It”, post-wartime mother frantic to get her children off to school so she could get to the machine shop without being late, the sound of Mrs. Diehl at the piano dispelled any and all angst of such a hyperventilating morning with one, windswept burst of song.
Furthermore, after we had stood to Pledge, to pray, to sing, and to dutifully be seated, Mrs. Diehl would continue to play. And, for myself, a budding young musical student already being chauffeured off to the Erie School of Music every Thursday at 4:00pm for my own piano lesson, I was deeply transfixed – listening, watching.
Several minutes would pass, as Mrs. Diehl, never once making eye contact with any of us, her countenance intently introverted by her voluminous musical mind, played song after song. She would become my first true model of performance, giving herself totally to the enterprise, instinctively knowing and manifesting the inherent value of the music itself.
Other cultures on this planet also know the inherent value of the musical art. They make certain to include music and music-related activities in as much as 50% or more of their student curriculum. And, research scientists who devote their efforts to the study of the human mind and the brain which drives it are consistently putting out data in support of the multi-level value of music as both a discipline and art form. Now, there is enough evidence to defy all detractors; those who make music, and specifically those who play the piano, have some of the most highly developed brains on the human spectrum.
Mrs. Diehl may have been a superior musician, but she was also a woman of compassion. No one knows for sure how or why she adopted the girl who was called Marjorie. But, she did. Yet, just as every human is capable of both strength and profound weakness, of confident stride and defiant misstep, Marjorie made a rocky pattern out of her life and became submerged beyond the point of return.
Mrs. Diehl did not live to see the culmination of her daughter’s actions, a blessing indeed; diagnosed with mental illness, Marjorie very likely did not receive the benefit of music therapy in her lifetime and, in the end, even her mother could not alter the behavior potential of a starling child, though she had made the effort of a lifetime.
But, Mrs. Diehl did contribute to the nurture of hundreds and hundreds of Erie’s children, mentoring other teachers as well, and is remembered by many as a remarkable educator. She also left distinctive, inspiring musical renderings in the minds and hearts of everyone who entered her classroom.
Lest the community of Erie and those who view it from afar regard the story of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong as a tragic stain, a moment of honor is due her mother, whose efforts painted an elegant, graceful picture of enduring nourishment. Perhaps her story, and those of Erie’s best teaching professionals, should be celebrated instead.
Our hometown could use just such recognition and encouragement.