After Jemtegaard Middle School history teacher Scott Rainey was announced as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Department of Washington’s 2021-22 Citizenship Education Middle School Teacher of the Year, he couldn’t help but think about his father, Louis, a 23-year United States Navy veteran.
Rainey had a set of his father’s military ribbons tucked into his breast pocket as he accepted the award during a Jan. 15 VFW banquet in Yakima, Washington. He also brought an 8-by-10 photo of Louis, “an impossibly young, impossibly handsome 16-year-old kid in 1943 in his Navy jumpsuit looking into the camera with a cocky grin,” to the stage.
“This is truly the greatest award that I’ve ever received because there’s a lot of military service in my family,” said Rainey, whose mother, Opal, was a veteran of the Manhattan Project, a research and development undertaking during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. “I was very excited (to be chosen), of course. It’s quite an honor coming from a group like that. It was a really fun surprise.”
The VFW’s Citizenship Education program “stimulates interest in America’s history, democracy, and civic responsibility, and aims to identify and recognize the best educators who instill a sense of national pride in their students,” according to the VFW website.
Rainey has taught history at Jemtegaard since 1998.
“Mr. Rainey’s work honors our veterans who fought to ensure that all Americans have a voice,” Jemtegaard principal David Cooke said. “Mr. Rainey reminds the students of the many gifts we have in this country and how to make this nation better through their participation.”
Those lessons were passed down to Rainey by his father, who advanced to the prestigious rank of chief boatswain’s mate during his Navy career and served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Rainey remembers his father as one of the wisest people he’s ever known.
“He didn’t go to college, but he made sure his boys went to college — all of us got master’s degrees,” said Rainey, who grew up in Southern California and earned advanced degrees in literature and educational technology. “He really valued and respected education. Even though he didn’t necessarily have a physical classroom, he was the greatest teacher I ever knew. I really believe (he) is the reason I am a teacher. He never missed a chance to teach me about something – from not judging someone by the color of their skin to showing me how to magnetize a screwdriver using a car battery.”
“I firmly believe that every child I’ve ever taught has had ‘the chief’ teaching them to one degree or another,” Rainey said, referring to his father. “His words have come through me in so many ways, about our country or life in general or whatever it may be. There’s an awful lot of his voice that’s coming out.”
In fact, Rainey bases the foundation of his American history teachings on a “very simple statement” that his father instilled in him during his childhood: “America is not perfect. It has problems. But it’s the best going, and there’s always a line to get in and no line to get out.”
“I’ve taken that kind of mentality with the kids,” Rainey said. “I want them to understand that to be a patriotic American doesn’t just mean waving a flag and going, ‘Yeah, USA.’ It’s recognizing there’s been some messed-up stuff, but the basic ideas of equality and freedom and those kinds of things are ideals that we need to be striving for. I constantly harp on the kids that history is just a story, but it’s essential that we take an active role in that story.”
Cynthia Fahrenkrug, a special education paraeducator for the Washougal School District and U.S. Navy veteran, nominated Rainey for the award.
“In sharing our stories, Scott’s passion for history is abundantly clear. It goes beyond the stuff you find in textbooks. It’s a passion he shares with his students,” Fahrenkrug said. “It’s what makes him such an outstanding teacher, and I thought more people ought to know it.”
“Scott shares his passion for our history and democracy with his students in various ways, from promoting a student-led mock demonstration to leading the annual ‘East Coast tour’ to introducing students first-hand to some of our greatest historical landmarks,” Fahrenkrug wrote in her nomination letter. “He engages in and encourages academic and civil debate. His class is one students remember. He is the sort of teacher students remember well and fondly.”
Fahrenkrug said she was particularly impressed with how Rainey dealt with a student who complained about a school rule several years ago.
“He encouraged them to take that complaint and make a change if they felt it infringed on their rights. He turned their complaint into a lesson on how our democracy works that included research, not just into the rule the student sought to change, but into the process on how one properly goes about changing governance,” Fahrenkrug stated in her letter. “I have no doubt that this lesson — that our government has built into it a means to ensure that it is a ‘government for the people, by the people’ — is one that will stay with his students long after they’ve passed the eighth grade.”
Rainey brings his history lessons to life by taking his students to the East Coast every summer, an educational field trip that has turned into an annual rite-of-passage for Washougal eighth-graders. They visit the cities of Jamestown and Williamsburg in Virginia to learn about the United States’ early colonial era and role in the Revolutionary War. They go to Mount Vernon, also in Virginia, to see the plantation owned by the country’s first president, George Washington. Rainey takes the students to Washington, D.C., where they tour the United States Capitol, Arlington National Cemetery and the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and take photos outside of the White House. They journey to Pennsylvania, where they visit the famed Gettysburg Civil War battlefield and have dinner with an Amish family in Lancaster. The trip ends in New York City, where the students visit Times Square, Broadway, Wall Street and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
“The whole idea behind that is to get kids from the West Coast to see another part of the country that maybe they’ve never been to and hopefully give them the ‘travel bug,'” Rainey said. “I call it ‘the journey of a lifetime.’ It gives the kids a chance to spread their horizons. I’ve always said that once you walk the streets of Washington D.C. and New York, you’re a different person. You can view the world differently. If there’s anything I want them to get out of the trip, it’s a charitable view of humanity.”
To that end, Rainey has launched a nonprofit organization called East County Student Travel and established an account at all of the local iQ Credit Union facilities to accept donations.
“If I were to win the lottery or if Jeff Bezos were to adopt me and I had relatively unlimited funds, I would without question pay out of my own pocket for any kid to go on this trip because I’ve seen what traveling does for them,” he said.
For more information about Rainey’s East County Student Travel organization, email wasougalstu email@example.com.