Tag Archives: School District of the City of Erie PA

Butchie.

Butchie'sBowl

 

The Italians in Erie have always been different from those at the other end of Pennsylvania.

Not sure why, probably settlement patterns. Perhaps the bricklayers all ended up in our port city.

But, Butchie was typical of Erie. He was a Sicilian and Calabrese mix.

And, most of these were deeply familial, multi-generational. All associated, historically, with the mob mystique that shrouded our town for so many decades.

Many of the rest of us, whether Italian of heritage ourselves, or among the scores of other ethnicities represented in Erie’s closely juxtaposed ghettos, regarded the short, broadly smiling, muscular men of his ilk as classed alike.

Most of them worked for the City. Streets. Waste management. Water treatment. Parks and R. They were the crews in charge of maintaining what kept the city going every day.

I confess. I always thought Italian men born and raised in Erie would be workers, to the core. Never did I assume, and errantly, that a single one of them would be at all like Butchie DeFazio.

We’d met in the late 1980’s at Denny’s Restaurant on Peach Street, the old Sambo’s. He’d always come to the counter with Roberto, the tailor. Didn’t know it then, but they were both committed betting men, wagering on the horses at the nearby Downs racetrack. There’d be a coffee, and then several minutes at the PackMan over by the wall, Butchie leaning against it and deftly playing the thing like a slot machine.

Butchie didn’t say much. He liked short words, quick phrases, thick with his tough, second generation accent and attitude. He seemed like a street kid, shy but never letting on, and the first man in town to have hair implanted right across the forehead. Many others would make the attempt, and we’d find out how the pain aborted their efforts; not Butchie. Like everything else we’d come to know about him, he wanted a clean line and would do whatever it took to get it.

In 1986 Mr. Veltri, who’d taught sixth grade at Lincoln, came in for dinner and told me about a vocal music position opening up at the junior high I had attended.  Mr. Ciotti was retiring; did I want to apply? It had been over 5 years since my college graduation day, and this role as waitress had settled nicely for me; short, intense shifts, nothing loading the frontal lobe after hours…..I liked my life. But, expectation beckoned, along with a faint memory of why I went to college in the first place. I took the interview.

The panel included administrators, Personnel, the district psychologist…what were my thoughts on marching band? Obliviously, I gushed; as lead bugler, my father had led his battalion in a parade for the US Army dignitaries. I loved parades!

When the letter from the district arrived, I’d been assigned to East High School.

As music teacher to the East High marching band, choir, chorus, “stage band”, and whatever else the principal called his depository for students not destined for academic superiority, I was both energized and scared; I hadn’t been around teenagers since student teaching years before, and this was the roughest neighborhood in town. Gingerly, I stepped into the bandroom to check out my new digs.

Butchie stepped in right behind me.

Never knowing he’d been employed by the district all this time,  I was astonished to discover that, he having bid out and vacating the position to the newbie, I was the winner of his prized legacy.

Mr. DeFazio hadn’t been at East very long – maybe a couple years. Figures. He’d not been at all understood, by anyone there, any more or less than I might have been. Politically, the East side belonged to the Poles and the Germans and the Russians, after all, and the Italians should stay on the West side where they came from.

He was heading to the elementary schools, he’d said – something I would do many years later, to stay, just as he. And, then he carried on with his usual flair. Only this time he peppered his delivery with complex chord progressions; a jazz pianist, he disclosed, he had “played out” in the Erie scene for many years, all in the past, he kept assuring me.

Turned out we’d both graduated from Fredonia State University. He’d been a piano major, no less. Then, the teaching degree, same as mine. Who was this masked man, and why had I never heard him play?

I asked him to sit at the nearby piano.

He refused.

He’d stopped playing, he said. Stopped playing out. Stopped playing.

I stared at him.

And, I never, ever found out why.

Years in, when I had moved to the elementaries, he would stop in out of the blue. On his final visit, a couple years before I retired, he brought me a huge box of videotapes to use – and, did I want them all for just 200 bucks?

One time, I’d asked him to stop over to the house. I thought maybe, if he did, he could play me some Chopin. I’d heard from Mary Ann, his sister, that he played a hell of a classical piano, too. I pled. I begged. He never came.

About four years ago, after his beloved sister Judy died, he moved from his house to the Glenwood Towers. And, he called me. Would I stop over? He had some music he wanted me to check out.

He looked good. Enhh…a little sugar, he said. A bit thinner, but still vital and on it like always. He took me to the storage cages. Here were boxes filled with Fake books, sheet music, and volumes of classical literature – the Beethoven sonatas. The Brahms. My God. The man had played everything.

He insisted. Ruthie, he called me, Ruthie, take it. Take the stuff. Take the Fake books…….I left most all of those, selecting a Brahms folio and some Beethoven. It was so good to see him.

A few months ago, Butchie died. He had been failing, Mary Ann said – getting ever thinner and thinner. But, true to form, never a peep about discomfort, never a need expressed, always tough, always cheerful. The casket was closed. I averted my face, feeling utterly exposed at the funeral. Why did his death feel like a tragedy?

Mary Ann told me, a few days later. He’d played his graduating recital at Fredonia, and the family was there. She said he came out, and sat at the piano, and didn’t move. He sat, for an entire seven minutes, without placing one finger on the keys. Then, he began to play.

She said the performance was stunning. Everybody in the audience felt it. And, everybody at Fredonia talked about it, for weeks and weeks thereafter. Samuel “Butchie” DeFazio was brilliant. A master.

I don’t know whether Erie will survive. Our city has been mismanaged by proud, short sighted people for decades. Entrenchment has seeped its dulling, molding poisons into the landscape and, in spite of a whole generation of emerging talent and intelligence, its families of longest standing – and, their legacies – are threatened with extinction.

One wonders how many Butchie DeFazios have been lost in that terminal shuffle.

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo   6/24/17    All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line. Be a good person.  Thanks.

littlebarefeetblog.com

 

 

 

 

Mrs. Diehl.

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 high schools, losing five thousand students with only the scent of enough loaves and fishes to feed those who remain.

And, 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 guarantee.

Mrs. 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 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.

Already seated as we 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, and to sing, only 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, 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.

Erie, Pennsylvania could use just such recognition and encouragement.

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo  4/4/17       – All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line. Thank you for your respect for those whose story is told herein.

littlebarefeetblog.com

Jay Badams.

 

 

He’d stepped quickly in and out of our designated classroom, about to be introduced to our faculty collective by the Superintendent of Schools. Upon his return he’d stood, on the sidelines – black suit, white shirt and tie, black hair neatly trimmed in a conservative cut – as the Superintendent announced his name. I remember thinking how his presence harkened back to the men of my own extended family, the good boy still visible in his countenance and bearing.

I wondered, then, as he stood being lauded by his own boss, what the goals were for this man. Was he being groomed for something bigger? That was usually what happened within the hierarchy of The School District of the City of Erie, PA, the town that forever clamored to be just like all the big cities.

He wasn’t an Erie boy; of that, I was certain. Face a bit too clean, features smaller and more refined, frame just too tall to match its counterparts in the full figured strata of city workers and dutiful sons which populated our familial landscape.

What set the man further apart was his poise. He was only momentarily still; even when his feet stopped, the rest of him – his mind, his purpose – kept moving. He was ever forward thinking, yet reserved in the company of people.

The Superintendent introduced him as Jay Badams, the new head of some curriculum level; he was to be a force in the implementation of the latest plan. I remember thinking that, perhaps that year, the latest plan would actually have functional legs; this man seemed equipped to engage.

But, being the music teacher, once that convocation had ended I’d set about to perform the many tasks to which I was committed, and rarely gave another thought to the machinations of the District and its administration. The next time I heard about Jay Badams, he’d become just another of the multitude of parents in my building, the entire population of which were my students. He’d risen in rank and stature; but, to my purposes, he was Emma and Jack’s father.

Emma was quiet, a watcher and listener. She was bright, and talented, too, and perfect for the lead in A Christmas Story, and not because she was Jay Badams’ daughter. Her little brother was also on the quiet side, but a typical boy of his generation; both children were clean, like their father, well presented, respectful toward their elders, good students, and well liked by all.

I met their mother, Tiffany, and her mother, for the first time in the hall behind my stage door. It may have been on Parent Teacher Conference day; it might have been after a concert, or the show. I do remember that she made a point of expressing her appreciation directly to me for a job she deemed well done, and did so with grace and warmth. I also recall wondering if a woman of her presence had found a happy life in our town. Lord knew, I had become so fixated on my own work that I could hardly have been a friend to any parent, even if I’d wanted to be.

I remember, however, the next time I saw Jay Badams.

The day had been exhausting. It was production week, for the extra-curricular drama club, and the final concert of the student body. I’d managed to cram everything into the last days of the semester, every year, my mind and body paying the price and the students feeling the fall out.

There’d been a contingent of first grade boys that had worked my final nerve. And, while I knew that testing the teacher’s patience was a prospect anticipated with very great enthusiasm by many children, I always reserved my fiercest expressions for its limits. On that day, my pent up inner monster – raging against a system which had become increasingly thankless toward its hardest workers – had roared long and loud, sending more than one unblinking stare back to the classroom reeling from the onslaught.

School had dismissed, and there was the usual bustle of movement down my stage door hallway as the buses flanked in the lot outside. Something, perhaps it was the long, black topcoat, caught my peripheral vision. I looked up, as a father with his son passed quickly by the stage door toward the parking lot exit. His expression was one of concern, yet resolute; Jay Badams had his small young boy’s hand in his own.

A father, in black topcoat; a white collar professional, walking his boy to the door and holding his hand. He was not rushing. He was with his son. They were simply walking, with purpose, to leave the building at the end of the school day. But, the image of the two of them pierced me.

Had my ferocious bellowing frightened his child, that day? Had I scared all the children? Was I hurting my students? Would the Assistant Superintendent find out from his little boy, on the ride home from school?

So many parents had taken, in recent years, to reporting teachers to the school principal. A child coming home, with a story of alleged behavior, would frequently result in a closed door session between said parent, the principal, and the teacher being accused. And, these sessions rarely found the teacher anything but guilty as charged; rather, many an educator, usually a woman, would exit such a meeting in tears.

If I had traumatized Jack Badams that day, I never heard about it from his parents.

Needless to say, I would not forget that image. Nor would I forget Jay Badams, or his children, especially his daughter, who was musical; she took to the xylophone with the same determined purpose I’d seen on her father’s face.

A full year after my own father’s death, followed by my retirement, I ran into Jay and his wife, and Tiffany’s colorful father, at a local social establishment. Tiffany spoke to me as I approached their table. She wanted to know if I taught the xylophone. I gave her the name of our premiere local piano teacher, Linda Kobler and, within the year, Emma was performing as pianist in recital, reflecting a relationship forged between student and teacher that would endure to this day.

Jay had said to me, that evening, and every time I’d seen him since: “We miss you.” He said it with earnestness, and I knew that he meant it. He’d become the Superintendent, and, if I’d had even one second thought about leaving the District, it had been because Jay had become our leader. I knew him to be a supporter not just of the arts, but of every committed teacher who broke her back to make creative, nourishing, and memorable things happen in the lives of children.

This man has been a tireless worker on behalf of the students in our District. The forces of resistance he has encountered might very well vanquish the mightiest among us. One thing I do know; as teachers, we are trained to recognize. We learn to read behavior, body language, inflection, intent. To that end, I know Jay Badams. I’ve met his wife, his in laws; and, I knew his children, when he and his wife were raising them. To witness the entire community rise up against him in the ongoing crisis that is our public school system in this Commonwealth is to endure the sight of public betrayal.

If Jay leaves our city, the loss will be ours. I wish him the longest vacation his body can withstand, followed by a welcoming and warm contingent of dedicated educators and leaders who know the meaning of accepted responsibility. If he stays, we need to stand up and thank him for facing Harrisburg head on. He is the genuine article, a man of integrity and courage, and our town has been starving for a leader like him for a long time.

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo    12/20/16