Tonight I feel inspired, reflective, maybe a little sad as well.
Tomorrow is exactly five years from the time that Joe Kincheloe died. Many people know Joe as a scholar and writer. He was a Professor and Canada Research Chair in the Faculty of Education at McGill University. He wrote more than 45 books, numerous book-chapters, and hundreds of journal articles in diverse areas relating to education and critical studies. He was prolific, successful, and extremely influential.
He was also my father-in-law, and a loyal and trusted friend.
I think about Joe often. He is easily on a short list of the most influential men in my life. He is the strongest influence on my desire to become a writer. My first book (soon to be released) is dedicated to him.
So tonight, as I reflect on his life, and our interactions, while listening to The Stones, Tom Petty, Steve Earle, Bob Marley, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Warren Zevon, and Tony and the Hegemones (music that reminds me of Joe), I wanted to share some of the wisdom that he shared with me when he was here.
Some things were direct, things that he’d tell me when we’d go on walks through the woods near his home in Morin Heights, Quebec. Others things I just noticed about him, and they were things that I observed in his habits and in his interactions with other people. They are in no particular order, just powerful little tendencies exhibited by a man who really knew how to live.
1. The taxi driver is as important as the President
Everyone who knew Joe had some memorable anecdote that went something like this: they’d leave Joe just for a moment, perhaps to check in to a hotel room, go to the bathroom, maybe drop into a store, only to come back and find Joe interacting with someone like he was their long lost brother. It was uncanny, and amazing. He could, and would, make friends with everyone. His smile was infectious. He was the most unpretentious person I have ever met, and he had valid reasons to be pretentious. I have been around so many people in my life who hide behind their titles and accomplishments, or even worse, shove them in my face to make them feel superior.
Joe was the opposite of this. He would literally treat the taxi driver with the same respect and dignity that he would show to a world leader. You’d never know that he was so successful and accomplished, because he never talked about it. The guy wrote 45 books, he had three graduate degrees. His intellect was off the charts, but he didn’t hide behind his titles and successes. He was the most real person I’ve ever met. He was always focused on the person in front of him. He is the best conversationalist, by a long shot, that I have ever encountered in my life, and his methods were actually quite simple: focus on the person in front of you, treat them like they are the most important person in the world.
2. If you’re going to rock, then really rock
Joe epitomized living in the moment, and really “feeling” what he was doing. He loved music. He was a talented piano player, and he would do concerts with his band “Tony and the Hegemones”. When he rocked he really rocked. Sweat pouring off him rock. Full immersion. Like he was a real rock star (to us he was).
You couldn’t listen to him, or watch him perform, without smiling, without tapping your feet, and without moving a little. Whether it was a Tom Petty cover, or a Joe Kincheloe original. When he played, he was the music, and you felt it.
3. Sit down and do your work
This is perhaps the most practical, success related, thing that Joe ever taught me. Interesting thing is that he never once told it to me. I just noticed it from him. I watched him, like the young impressionable man that I was.
It isn’t by luck that the man wrote 45 books. He was a machine. He was relentless in his habits. When it was time to rock he rocked. But when it was time to write, he wrote, and he rarely missed it. His discipline and habits, his ability to put his butt in the chair was remarkable. It taught me a powerful lesson, one that I try to implement every day as well: just sit down, shut up, and do my work. Do my work and the results will follow. Do my work and everything else that I want is possible. But first I must do my work.
4. There is nothing wrong with being a crazed fan
Joe was a wild (if perhaps not somewhat obsessed) Tennessee Volunteers football fan. Watching college football with him was an experience unto itself, and I loved it. I literally logged dozens and dozens of hours sitting with him just watching football. Since I was in school for most of our relationship, and they lived in either New York or Montreal, Meg and I would often go see them during winter vacation (college football bowl time). Those were some of my fondest memories.
You know what? If you’re going to be a fan, then be one, and there’s nothing wrong with loving your team, no matter what team that is. That is what Joe taught me. He unapologetically cheered, like a little kid, for his team, and I think what he was really saying was just be who you are. Love who you are. Love what you do. Embrace every moment.
5. Pursue what you believe in, even (especially) if it is scary
Joe was a master story teller. I can’t even pretend to do justice to his stories. They were so unbelievable that at times I wondered if I was listening to a life akin to the movie “Big Fish”. But every story that he told was true (at least he claimed). Many of his stories dealt with his many adventures being a counter-cultural youth in the bible belt south. One of my favourite stories was when he was wrongfully accused, arrested and detained as an undergraduate for “inciting a riot”. I’m laughing just thinking about that story.
The reality is that Joe had beliefs about education, corporate power, race and gender inequality, and government corruption that sometimes placed him in opposition to the ruling majority. Did he hide? Did he conform? Quite the contrary. He lived what he believed. He wrote what he believed. Even if it led to circumstances that other’s would find stressful, and scary. Best of all was that he could laugh about all of it. Truly a remarkable man.
6. Good things take time, and that’s a good thing
When Joe graduated with his doctorate the only job that he could find was on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota at Sinte Gleska College. I think a lot of people would be discouraged at this prospect. Not Joe, he wasn’t wired that way. He pretty much became an honorary member of the Sioux Nation. I’m not kidding. He embraced that role so much that he became beloved.
That was how Joe rolled. He wasn’t driven by instant gratification. He knew that getting his message across, and creating social change would take time, and he was willing to go in it for the long haul. One article at a time, one book at a time, one student at a time, one mind at a time. Complete immersion in the moment of what he was doing. When we had his life celebration it was packed with former students. People who could write their own articles on the things that Joe taught them. Even though he left us early, he did more in the time that he had than most people could ever dream of.
7. There is beauty all around
Joe had a gift for capturing, through poems and songs, the subtle beauties of life. He wrote songs for all his grandkids. I have the original copies of those songs for my daughter Maci and my son Cohen. They are so beautiful. It is hard to read them without getting emotional. He had a gift of seeing the good in everything. The good in people, and the good in situations.
My son Cohen was born with severe complications. It was a stressful time, full of tears, worries and anxiety. I had to take a leave of absence from work. It was the most uncertain moment of my life. Joe was such a support, always there to cheer us up. We lived for many months in Montreal during this time (as Cohen was at the Montreal Children’s Hospital). I can remember many moments where he would encourage us, cry with us, and make us laugh. He helped us to see beauty in the very darkest moments of our life.
8. Life is too short not to laugh, especially at yourself
Joe had a gift of laughter, and he was especially adept at laughing at himself. I’ll never forget the time when me and my friend Ali stayed with him for two weeks in Montreal to study for the bar exam. He was “in the trenches” on a soon to be released book, Shirley (Meg’s mom and Joe’s wife) was away and so he wanted the company. He’d write during the day, as we’d study for the bar, and then in the evening we’d watch sports. It was a great time.
Well one day Joe needed a haircut, so he left to go into town (he lived in Morin Heights) a small town outside of Montreal near the Laurentian Mountains. I think there was only one “stylist” in town and I think the only haircut they knew was the 1980’s bowl cut, Gerard Depardieu, cropped over the ears style, because that is exactly what he came home looking like. It was hilarious, and ridiculous. Joe walked in to the house, and immediately, as soon as me and Ali saw him, we burst out laughing. Then he burst out laughing also. Soon all three of us were just gut laughing. Finally as soon as Joe could manage he said “do I look like Gerard Depardieu?”. He never did get his hair fixed. He maintained his Gerard Depardieu until it morphed into his customary mullet. Good times. I think everyone who knew Joe had a story that involved something he said or did where he had a good laugh at himself.
If the world knew how to laugh at itself, the way Joe could laugh at himself, it would be a much different (and better) place.
Man we miss you Joe. You left us way to early. But thank you for sharing your time with us. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. Thank you for teaching us. You’re in our hearts tonight. We love you.