Tuesday, June 14, 2016

HAPPY BIRTHDAY
June 5, 1959 – December 2, 2012
     
I first met Darlene Sitler in 1988 on a field trip with my Mansfield University EdPsych class. Northern Potter Children’s School, where Darlene taught, was, at that time, an “open school” system, http://educationnext.org/theopenclassroom/ . As Education Majors, we were encouraged to visit individual classrooms and, since I was a Music Major, I sought out the Music Room. Since there was a class in session, I peeked through the door to see students engaged in playing a line of eight or more barred instruments: the same instruments we had been studying in our Methods Class. Ms. Sitler had the students arranged in lines of  two or three students behind an instrument. The students were accompanying and singing a song by playing simple repetitive musical phrases called “ostinati.” The rest of the class was gathered in a circle performing a dance as they also sang the song. All the students were actively engaged in the activity and I was captivated! 
As that class of 4th graders filed out of the room, I introduced myself as a Music Major at Mansfield and asked if I could stay and observe more classes. I was immediately struck by her humility, stating that she had only been teaching four years and was not that great, but that I was surely welcome. 
The next group of students was Kindergarten and they met in a circle on a carpet. Darlene began with an echoing chant “Sing, sing, what shall I sing?” The students echoed the words to the chant that identifies our four voices: singing, speaking, shouting, and whispering. After the chant, she began by having the children echo sirens and “whoops” going up and then down. Striking a tuning fork on her knee and listening to it, she chanted “My name’s Ms. Sitler” on sol, mi and la. The students chanted back, “Her name’s Ms. Sitler” and each child in turn sang their name on pitch.
As I observed class after class, I knew that I wanted to learn from this gifted teacher, so before I left, I asked if she had ever had a Student Teacher. Again, she humbly asked why I would choose someone as inexperienced as she was. Perhaps I should note that I was already in my forties, returning to college after an eighteen-year marriage and divorce. Nevertheless, I convinced Ms. Sitler to give me a chance and then convinced my professors to allow me to Student Teach in this tiny school in the middle of nowhere.
I lived at least 50 miles from the Norther Potter Children’s School and, since Darlene lived in the town between my place and the school, we decided to commute together. Despite our age difference and the fact that I was older than my “teacher,” we became good friends and had a lot of fun commuting and working together.
My favorite memory was the “notebook.” She had purchased one of those black composition notebooks. On the front of the book cover, Darlene wrote “AHHHHHHHhhhhhhh!” and on the back cover, she wrote “Whoops!” After every class I taught, we would meet after school and go over the “Whoops” first: the parts of my lesson that were weak. She always had great suggestions to help me make it better. Then we covered the “AHHHhhhs” which were the parts of my lesson that went well and that she really liked.   She ALWAYS made sure there were more “AHHHhhs” than “Whoops” because she was just that kind and caring.
I also loved teaching Band and Chorus. Darlene was an excellent instrumentalist and my skills were more vocal, although I was a pianist and church organist. Darlene said she was thrilled to have me there to accompany the chorus because her piano skills were lacking. I think she just liked conducting better than playing! On the other hand, my instrumental skills were LACKING for sure and it was all I could do to follow a band score of maybe fifteen parts at once rather than a choral score with only three singing parts. Darlene patiently worked with me as I taught instrumental lessons and directed the band successfully. I actually felt like a Maestro!
After graduation, I got a job teaching Elementary Music in North Carolina. I made sure to write Darlene and and we always kept in touch, especially after our MENC Music Conferences. We started finding little gifts for each other to use in the classroom. My favorite gift from her was this little shiny magic wand that had a spiral chamber on the end with a tiny metal ball in it so it jingled when you shook it. My students loved using it to do the “Bee, Bee, Bumble Bee” chant.
I always called Darlene when I was visiting in the area during our summer breaks and we would get together for lunch or dinner. I remember visiting for lunch with her and Greg and they were telling me about having a mouse in the house and trying to catch it. Darlene didn’t want to kill it so they got a cardboard mouse trap that was very sticky and the idea was that the mouse would get stuck to it and then you just released it outside. Well, apparently their mouse chewed off the cardboard around each of its feet. We laughed till we cried imagining this mouse walking around with cardboard soles on his feet!
When I sold my cabin in Sinnemahoning, I did not come to the area for Christmas or summer breaks, but spent time with my parents in Altoona. So by 2000 or so, Darlene and I were out of touch. I remember trying to call her over Christmas 2012, determined to get together, but when I called the land line number I had, I got the message that the phone had been disconnected. Though disappointed, I was not that concerned because everyone has a cell phone and I knew that Darlene and Greg had been teaching longer than I had and were probably retired and traveling.
I retired in August of 2014 and moved back to PA. After I got settled, I decided to start reconnecting with old friends and called Darlene’s number again, only to get the same message. Then one day when I was out to lunch with some friends at the Cabin Kitchen in Emporium, I decided to pick up a local paper and rather than get the ECHO, I picked up a different one. I didn’t read it for several days, but when I finally did read it, I saw a familiar face on the front page. The headline was “Sitler Seeks Retrial” and at first, it did not register. I started to read the article, and it was as if someone had punched me in the stomach. I could not breathe. My friend was shot by her husband in church as she played the organ on a December morning.     http://www.krinerfuneralhomes.com/notices/Darlene-Sitler
I researched everything I could find on the murder and finally called the pastor of the Presbyterian Church who was with her when she died. She invited me to come to the church the following weekend and to go with the congregation to the Northern Potter Children’s School Auditorium which was being dedicated to Darlene and is now called the Darlene J Sitler Memorial Auditorium. Several of her students performed that day, including a French horn student who played Darlene’s horn and friends and fellow teachers eulogized her with poems and short stories, some of them humorous and some very personal and touching. There were very few dry eyes in those gathered.
The Pastor handed me a piece of paper before I left for home that day. She gave me a hug and asked me to read it when I got home and respond accordingly. I took the long way home, down through Sinnemahoning, and past Winslow Hill and back to 155 and DuBois. My thoughts were scattered, all little videos of my times with Darlene. The darker thoughts were of her last moments. In church that morning, I had asked the Pastor to tell me how it happened: Did Darlene see Greg come in with the gun? No; Was she killed instantly? No. Greg fired off a few shots and she fell from the organ bench and he went back outside and put his gun on the hood of his truck. Several parishioners followed him outside and tried to subdue him till the police arrive. He picked his gun up and started back into the church stating that he had to make sure she was dead. He threatened those who tried to stand between him and the door to the church and he went back inside and up to where she was on the floor and fired more shots and then left. I played that video over and over in my mind and could not let it rest.
When I got home, I opened the note. It was an invitation to a birthday party for Darlene. The church had built a lovely memorial garden in memory of Darlene because she loved to garden and had been tending the flowers at the church and the parsonage. After she left Greg, she found a little house for rent not far from the church. The first birthday after her death, friends and fellow teachers had met at the garden and released balloons to celebrate her life. The invitation was for another gathering on her birthday at the Pastor’s house. The instructions read: “Bring a dish to share and some note cards. We will be sharing Darlene’s recipes.” I suddenly remembered what a great cook she was! What a wonderful way for her spirit to live on as we lovingly prepared her favorite dishes!
Six people came to the party and it was fun to look through her recipe cards and remember what dishes we had shared with her. There were other stories told; how she feared for her life; how Greg was stalking her; how she had joined the swimming pool in the summer and  finally learned to swim and dive; how much she loved her little house and her cats. Before I started for home, I drove to the street where she lived and found her little house. I could so imagine her dwelling happily there!
The horror and sadness of her death is still with me, though not as intensely as it was a year ago when I learned of it. Lately I have found myself thinking of her as I try to learn a song on my fiddle and I imagine her sitting and listening to my horrible scratchy playing and laughing. I have been weeding my front flower bed of those little annoying weeds that are only an inch tall but fill the bed profusely; weeds that, if you do not pull them completely out by the roots will continue to plague your garden space for years to come; tedious, boring work that Darlene would endure patiently. I could actually feel her there with me as I worked and in my mind, we carried on a spirited conversation about flowers, weeds, music, knitting, that special notebook; and I felt so compelled to finally write all of this down. 
And here I am. Looking up her obituary to make sure I got the dates correct and voila! It is her birthday! Happy Birthday, Dear Friend! I miss you so much! I am so sorry you had to live in fear but I am so happy you finally had the freedom to be you! Please continue to visit me in quiet moments. I will never forget you!

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