Headmaster's Blog

  • Notes from the Head of School
A New School Year Filled With Promise
Dr. Steve Bellis

This has been a special week.  I so enjoy the energy, friendship and love present as students and teachers come together to start a new year. This year, however, many of us have experienced other emotions as well. In early, we lost a very special member of our community, upper school choral director and performing arts chair Joel Diffendaffer. 

Joel, fondly known as “Diff”, was a superb teacher.  He loved music, and he was an expert at teaching it. He loved teenagers, and he was an expert at teaching them.  His choirs were incredible - winning so many awards for excellence it August became impossible to keep track of them all.  Joel’s beaming face as he proudly stood in front of his choir on the stage of Carnegie Hall is an image I will always treasure.

He did more than win awards, however. Joel received notes from bus drivers telling him his students were the most polite they had ever driven because of simple things like saying “hello” when they got on, “thank you” when they departed, and picking up their trash rather than leaving it for the driver. We once received a voicemail from a waitress at a restaurant in the middle of Illinois.  She said she “just had to call the school” and tell us how nice and friendly the Pembroke Hill choir was when they stopped in on their way to Chicago.  She said she had never made a call like this before, but she had never had a group act like this before.  Of course, we knew that the students were simply imitating their leader.

If a student loved music and had a talent for it, he or she could not hope for a better teacher than Joel.  That says a lot, but it does not begin to tell Joel’s story.  What made him so special is the work he did with students who did not love music or who had only so-so talent.  Even more so, was the work he did with students who had challenges.  It was his work with these students – the ones in the back row who signed up for choir because they thought it would be easy or the individual who had a hard time fitting in – that earned my deepest admiration.  Many times through the years, upper school principal Mike Hill and I would be meeting, worrying about a student, when our solution would involve calling Joel.  Every time, he responded with the amazing enthusiasm that came so naturally to him. He helped countless young people successfully navigate the sometimes-challenging waters of adolescence.  This is one of the reasons why hundreds of his current and former students and colleagues turned out to celebrate him this month.

In the many tributes to Joel, certain words and phrases are repeated.  These include: generous, kind, caring, friendly, positive and helpful.  Each of them rings true.  I have also heard many people express the feeling that the loss of such a positive person will be hard to overcome.

At our opening faculty and staff meeting this year, I shared with my colleagues that my personal response to Joel’s passing is to try and be more like him: to choose to be more generous, kind, caring, friendly, positive and helpful.  Joel set a very high bar.  Today, the members of the upper school faculty are wearing shirts emblazoned with “Make a DIFFerence” as they, too, try to turn their grief into good while honoring their colleague.

Let’s all “Make a DIFFerence” this year by being just a little more kind, a little more generous of spirit. I can’t think of a better way to honor the memory of an extraordinary human being. 

Here’s to the promise of children.
Here’s to Joel Diffendaffer.