Remembering Former MCS Teacher, Philippe Derfeuil

By Al Daniel

You know an activity has a preeminent position in the Montessori Community School when the yearbook devotes two pages to it.

That was the chess club under Philippe Derfeuil’s direction in 2010-11. Go to pages 50 and 51 in that edition, and you will find 14 images of competition and camaraderie on one side. The other page is an 18-shot gallery of the group’s annual Battle of Hastings presentation.

The volume of that content spoke to Philippe’s energy and dedication, both in terms of making memories and preserving them. Former MCS parent Jenny Auman, who took charge of producing the yearbook from its 2009-10 inception through 2015-16, fondly recalled his contributions to the publication and the community it covered.

“He led the chess team so graciously and seemed to really enjoy teaching chess to these rambunctious children,” she said. “For the yearbook Philippe provided pictures he’d take at chess tournaments and other school events, and he would often give me good ideas of things to include, help me identify children and the different events.”

A perennial contender for event of the year, the Battle of Hastings meant borrowing the gym and converting the court to a life-size chess board. Philippe’s Lower El students would dress as the pieces and assume their positions — as directed by two other students playing a regular game on the sideline — while their peers and parents packed the house to look on in awe.

The pieces on the big board variously brandished foam swords and shields, sported horned helmets, rode staffs topped with horse puppet heads, and unleashed gym balls turned cannonballs from behind cardboard castles.

Perhaps no one more than Sabine Howe, MCS P.E. specialist who came to the school concomitantly with Philippe in 2002, was impressed with the way her classroom served this enriching purpose. She witnessed it twice a year, as the club also put on a Battle of Grunwald exhibition.

The only reason the yearbook didn’t cover Grunwald was because the two shows were special cappers on each semester, and the publication had gone to press late in the second. But those who witnessed the second battle firsthand remember it well enough.

“It was just an epic,” said Upper Elementary guide Don Henchel.

Before other community members came when the product was ready to go live, Sabine had a front-row seat to her colleague’s meticulous, tireless preparation. Philippe took one-man charge of rolling out the tarp and painting each black or white square on his board.

“Nothing was too much work for P and the event,” she said, adding that the fun-driven work ethic spread effortlessly to the students.

“The kids were so incredibly proud in their costumes and marched in as if the queen had requested them.”

When it came to Philippe, royal mirth transcended extracurricular activities and academics. He began his MCS tenure as the Spanish specialist and co-coached soccer with Sabine in addition to the chess club, which he founded and made into an instant dynasty. Five of the 14 photos on Page 50 of the 2010-11 yearbook show him or a student holding a trophy.

Perhaps the only thing chess yielded more of than hardware was enthusiasm. When Lower Elementary guide Jen Tobolski was interviewed for the MCS Families series, she remembered her son Arden signing up and how they “would have to get to school early to get into” the club. She added, “Arden did very well with Philippe.”

Primary guide and former MCS parent Rochelle Hayes similarly recalls her sons, Jon and Nick Hale, expressing an unexpected, yet explicable, interest in the club.

“I know their interest in chess had everything to do with Philippe,” she said. “He made a very cerebral game seem as lively as any soccer match, and my boys absolutely loved him for it.”

Underscoring the enjoyable common threads between a mental competition and a rigorous sport was only natural for someone of Philippe’s vast horizons. Jon Hale ’15 got a Rugby 101 tutorial from him on a classroom computer when the two waited for Rochelle to wrap up parent-teacher conferences.

“We sat there for hours while he explained the game to me,” Jon said. “It made me see Philippe as a regular person who loved sports just as much as I did, especially when he’d get so hyped playing in the student-parent/staff soccer matches.”

Philippe transcended that energy through every corner of campus and every hour he spent on it, which he needed because he was in brimful demand. In the 2012-13 academic year, he added French instruction to his repertoire. It made sense for a man proud of his shared geographic roots with Dijon mustard.

“His wonderful (very strong) French accent is what endeared him right away to so many people and of course to the children!” said Sabine. “So funny is that he was hired to teach Spanish.”

But that assignment befit Philippe’s expansive worldview. He was as eager to learn the likes of German as he was to teach other languages. When it came to doing the latter, the sights and sounds made his zest unmistakable.

Philippe’s background made for a riveting trinity as he energetically alternated English and Spanish with his natural French intonation. For assistance, he would screen the humorous bilingual cartoon Pocoyo for his class (and, in Nick’s words, “laugh just as hard as we did”) or sing in Spanish with, as Rochelle phrased it, “a basket of fruit precariously balanced on his head.”

“Philippe made everything funny, which made everything fun, even when you didn’t feel like a Spanish lesson,” said Nick.

Out on the grass, providing color commentary at the Mini Olympics let Philippe impart fun factoids on dozens of countries. Don, who still emcees the event himself, remembers how “He kept the quips coming fast and sometimes with an indecipherable French accent (or maybe it was in French?).”

“He brought the games to life, and was hilarious with this commentaries of the children and of the countries they were representing!” added Sabine. “The crowd of spectators were so entertained by his comments. He could easily have been a sports announcer or any commentator in a second life!”

Philippe flexed those same assets at every Mustang soccer practice or game. He kept his co-coach and players loose with healthy helpings of humor, although he occasionally elicited laughs without trying.

Per Sabine, when the ball cleared a fence during a road game at Seawell Elementary, Philippe insisted on retrieving it posthaste, despite the supply of backup balls. In the process, his pants got caught on a hook and tore so egregiously he relocated his coat to his lower body for the rest of the game and the ride back to campus.

So many memories like this,” Sabine said, “and always with a smile and a joyous heart.”

After 13 years of generating those memories for himself, his students, and his colleagues, and sending his young daughters Claire and Louise here, Philippe took his family back to his homeland in the summer of 2015. The move made for a profound our-loss-is-their-gain feeling around MCS.

“We knew how much P loved his hometown of Dijon and his amazing family and friends back at home,” said Sabine.

Added Rochelle, who was also Philippe’s class room parent for a time, “I so admired Philippe’s live-and-let-live attitude, and how he approached life with a sly smile and eternal twinkle in his eye. As a parent, I appreciate how clearly he saw my children and embraced them for who they were.”

She continued, “As a colleague, I looked forward to how cheerfully he would talk me through any issue. As a friend, I was challenged by his constant example to live fully and completely in each and every moment.”

She concluded, “Philippe was a wonder, and I consider myself immeasurably blessed to have known him.”

“Philippe was a one-man show,” said Don. “Always ready to laugh and get the students worked up into a frenzy of fun and learning. Who do you know that could get children to try snails or cheese that smelled like old socks?

“We shan’t see his like again in this realm.”