I've thought about how to start this a few times, and not many of them seemed to hit the mark. It's been a long time since I have written anything here, and peeking through some of my own posts reminded me exactly why I needed to write this. You see, the world lost a beauty today, and the most fitting way for me to reminisce about Joe Bower is to write a blog.
Joe's blog, For the Love of Learning, is incredibly influential. His popularity on Twitter and as a speaker about redesigning education is undeniable. The tributes Joe has received on social media since he suffered a massive heart attack speak volumes about his prominence. His understanding of how to harness emerging media to spread his ideas was absolutely cutting edge. I was always impressed and astounded by the reaction he elicited from people, particularly people who only knew him online.
I first met Joe Bower when he was 19 years old. Many people his age would have just graduated from high school, perhaps taken a year off to find themselves, and just dipping their toes into post-secondary school. Not Joe. He was already in his third year of his BEd, accepted into a highly competitive Middle Years Program at Red Deer College. Joe came to my school for his four week practicum and student taught with a good friend and colleague. From the outset, it was clear that Joe knew who he was and what he wanted to be. He loved teaching and sincerely wanted to be the best teacher possible.
Part of Joe's passion stemmed from his own experience as a student. When I found out that a good friend of mine taught Joe in high school, I casually mentioned it. Joe's reaction was typical. He didn't care about my relationship with this teacher outside of school. To Joe, this person was not a good teacher and he didn't care what a nice person he was. Joe always told you what he thought and you never had to guess where you stood. Joe would tell you, in no uncertain terms. One of my former students, now a school administrator, said "what a lot of people don't know is that Joe's brutal honesty is just an invitation to be honest ourselves." So true, Everett, so true.
As a student teacher, Joe jumped right in to the life of our school. In those days, we had a lot of younger staff who had not yet started families. The end of a work week often required a serious debriefing at a local establishment or someone's home. We played as hard as we worked, and Joe was always eager to be part of the fun. Joe started joining our Wednesday night teacher hockey during those years. Even better, Joe loved to play goal and he quickly became a mainstay of our group. Oddly enough, part of the teacher hockey ritual included rehydration at a local pub, and Joe lost a lot of sweat during our late night shinny sessions. Once Joe graduated and started teaching, he continued playing goal with us, despite the good-natured ribbing that comes with being a goaltender. At times, Joe would forget his long underwear and have to his big black protective cup with nothing underneath. He could have auditioned for the Showcase series Kink and received a role!
Another great memory I have of Joe is through skiing, or more specifically, snowblading. As a student teacher, he jumped right in to supervising the weekly ski club. Even though he started teaching at a different middle school, our ski clubs often booked the same nights at our local ski area, Canyon. Joe grew up next door to Canyon and he was a machine on the slopes. It was Joe who first introduced me to snowblading, a guilty pleasure I wrote about in a previous post (Confessions of a Shortboarder). Riding a chairlift with someone you know means you have 10 minutes to just talk. These 10 minute visits allowed me to really learn who Joe was. Our visits at Canyon evolved into an annual ski trip at Teacher's Convention that we called "Weekend at Fernie's".
The details of these ski trips should remain in the memories of those who participated, even though the details might be a bit foggy. We had a solid crew of participants and Joe was always front and center. He loved to ski, he loved to talk, and he loved to have a great time. He never missed a trip and some of my absolute favorite memories involve trips to and from the mountains with Joe. In another post (The Millennium Falcon), I reminisced about these trips. Joe was definitely one of the many hairy creatures my Falcon transported.
It was during these times that I learned exactly what a complex and admirable man Joe really was. He loved teaching, he loved sports, he loved life, and he loved Tamara. From the time I knew Joe, he knew that Tamara was going to be his wife. She understood, admired, and tolerated him. His love for her was resolute. I was honored to attend their wedding and watch them as they started a family.
As we grew older and busier, I didn't have as many chances to visit with Joe, though we still crossed paths regularly. One of Joe's first speaking engagements came when I ran the ATA Middle Years Conference in 2007. When I taught in the Middle Years Program at RDC, I invited Joe to my class to share some of the things he was doing in his classroom. Joe's early presentations were passionate, profane, and always elicited a strong reaction. I always admired Joe's willingness to swim against the mainstream to support what he truly believed in. It may not have made him popular with his employer, but that is the beauty of who Joe was. Joe could be incredibly abrasive, particularly if you didn't know him well.
My last conversation with Joe Bower fits the mold of my entire relationship with him. We were playing in a memorial hockey tournament last September. Joe played for an opposing team, but we found time for a drink and a chat in the parking lot, between games. Instead of a political or educational discussion, we talked about our families and baseball. We reminisced about a time he "slept over" in my basement following a Wednesday teacher hockey session, and we realized that 14 years had passed since that night. In those fourteen years, our families had grown. Joe had written a book and was the author of a hugely influential blog. I left Red Deer to become principal of a K-12 school similar to the one Joe attended as a student. Fundamentally, though, nothing had changed.
Joe would still literally give the shirt off his back to help a friend. He still believed passionately that our education system could be so much better than it currently is. He loved sports and having a good time with his friends. He wanted a better world for his children and family, who were the center of everything he did. As I said earlier, the world lost a beauty today. I know you can't comment on this blog, Joe, but I do hope you know how much I think of you.