*Author’s note: This piece was originally 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 past Friday 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.
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.
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.
Well before any of us entered the 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 intrinsic 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.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo 4/4/17; updated 10/18 Thank you for your respect for those whose story this is.
17 thoughts on “Mrs. Diehl.”
Well written and a beautiful tribute to a wonderful teacher.
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A single light that illuminated the dark for thousands. This is public education – this is a life driven by compassion, empathy and the inherent power of the arts. Thanks for sharing ❤
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Thank you, dancingcybermonkey!
I’ll try again to respond to your excellent Mrs. Diehl – I also “liked” your writing very much and your server responded the usual way. It said that my password was not correct and did not send! How happy I am for you that you had such a teacher who taught you about the joy of music. REW
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Your comment has appeared, Ruthie. The server, I believe, is not mine which is causing the problem; anytime you get a notification that your password is incorrect, the problem is caused by your link to the site, I think. I can’t control that part; WordPress gives you three options for commenting, and three icons just below the comment box. I think you need to click on the icon you wish to use, in order for your comment to “take.” Don’t click on the “W” icon, as I do not believe you have a WordPress account. You certainly do not need one, in order to comment! 🙂
I would like to know how old Marjorie was when her loving parents adopted her? It sounds like the Diehl’s did an amazing job with Marjorie. I’m asking as an adoptive mom of a troubled child. I would appreciate any information you are willing to share with me. Thank you!!!! And thank you for sharing this beautiful story!
Hello, casaquepaz. Marjorie was convicted of, I believe, conspiracy to commit murder, and died in prison. “An amazing job”? This piece was intended to portray her mother as a gifted educator and one willing to take on the immense responsibility of raising a troubled child. I think the jury is still out on whether or not her nurture was a factor, but perhaps. Mental illness knows only its own. Mrs. Diehl had a remarkable effect on MY life, and I wanted to portray and honor her strengths in this piece. “Amazing” is an adjective used all too frequently and, by its overuse, it may be weakened in its impact; nevertheless, I am grateful that you read my piece, and thank you for the compliments.
Do you know how old Marjorie was when they adopted her?
No. I don’t. But, I will try to find out!!
I would greatly appreciate that! Thank you so much!
Are you a screenwriter? I am registered at WGA-East.
P.S. I went to your blog site, but don’t see any entries there outside of the title……why is nothing you have written visible, there?
I am not a screenwriter. I am a mother of 6. Two adopted and 4 bio children. I was hoping to find time to write but my children’s needs exceed my time to do so at this juncture in life. Thank you for your time! I am looking forward to any information you can find about the age of adoption etc! Thank you!
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Ah. Okay. I will consult local sources, and see what can be unearthed. The Netflix? movie has drawn some attention to the “pizza bomber” case, in which Marjorie was sadly immersed.
Hence my interest. My husband and I immediately recognized very similar traits in our daughter and have many questions about her very early years, months and weeks. My husband is also in the medical field so these questions came up and we could find zero information about her first three years of life. That is what we are most compelled to learn more about! Thank you for your time! Perhaps, if I survive this, I will write a screenplay about my experience with childhood mental illness and personality disorders! 😊
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Diana, five years hence and me, dropping the ball on you. I’m so sorry. Hopefully, perhaps you have found the info you sought after giving up on my silence? It’s possible Marjorie’s obituary will offer contact information, regarding her early childhood. I hope!