The Red Wing (Minn.) School District is losing a great teacher, someone I respect immensely — my brother. If you’re lucky, you get someone in your life who inspires you, teaches you to think for yourself, challenges you and helps steer you to a successful path. In Red Wing, Scott Bender is one of those guys, so respected, one graduating class demanded that he, not some spit-polished corporate executive, give the commencement address.
As a kid, his nose was always buried in a book. He was a pretty good football player, too. There were six kids, so the money wasn’t there to put us through college. Scott joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to an intelligence outfit in West Germany before the wall fell. He had to learn Russian to do it. Two hitches. In return, Uncle Sam provided him an education that he could pass on. Nothing makes him happier than when a former student tells him how much he’s impacted their life. It’s happened many times. It will happen many more.
Finding a good fit wasn’t easy at first because Scott taught Social Studies, and often that’s considered a sluff class taught by coaches, but Scott didn’t want to coach. He wanted to teach. Really teach. His class wasn’t an automatic “A,” and he caught all kinds of heat when he failed students who didn’t do the work. He caught heat for teaching real history, real current events.
Each summer, his vacations centered on visits to historical sites where he could see the lay of the land and learn things that weren’t in the textbooks, things he passed on to his students, things that didn’t necessarily come with the rah-rah gloss of textbooks.
If I had to choose a word to describe him, it would be integrity, a lesson he absorbed at home. You do things honestly, ethically, and you stick to your guns. That’s what drove him, not some agenda. Facts. Reality.
I’ve never known him to be a political animal, just an honest broker of the facts. When Donald Trump was elected, his class started a list of his crimes including his propensity to inflate his wealth to get loans and then deflating it to avoid taxes. He and his class called it long before the investigations began. Some parents refused to let their kids do the homework. I’m sure their report cards reflected that. It wasn’t political for Scott, it was about reality. Facts.
He also got blowback for discussing the impact of religion on world history and current events, but how can you teach history without mentioning institutions that were often at the root of wars?
Last year, the principal, his antagonist, took away his politics class, leading one mother to lament to Scott how disappointed she was that her younger kids wouldn’t be able to take his class. It may have been the last straw.
There are many reasons the nation is experiencing a teacher shortage. Stress is a big one. Compensation is another. Scott once helped lead a teacher’s strike over an impasse on health insurance. He certainly didn’t need to. His army service qualified him for veterans benefits, but this was about supporting other teachers.
He was also a catalyst in an effort to change the name of Columbus Day to Chief Red Wing Day because the unvarnished truth is that Columbus was a cruel occupier, a mass murderer. Scott became the liaison between the city of Red Wing and the tribe, a high honor. Last summer, I visited the educational monument in Red Wing that celebrated Native American history, a monument that emerged from his efforts. He didn’t do it alone, but I wonder if it would have happened without him.
He was in a local watering hole one day when a former student he didn’t recognize at first bought him a beer. “Mr. Bender, when I was in seventh grade you said you were going to get rid of Columbus Day, and you did. Congratulations.”
His superintendent was dumbfounded when Scott told him he was retiring at 59. “But we can’t replace you,” he said. “Mr. Bender is an institution in these halls.” There’s no changing his mind, though. “I’m a dinosaur,” he told the superintendent, “and the meteor is streaking down.”
I mourn the loss of dinosaurs. You done good, Scott.
© Tony Bender, 2022