Unexpectedly, the most striking moment of Red Wing High School’s Class of 2020 commencement was the announcement of the All-Star Student in Shopwork award recipient.

Justin Scheerer ’24 recalls that most of the ceremony until then had gone as expected. The All-Star Student awards were conferred upon the highest-achieving student of each department, and in a graduating class size of just under 200, most already knew that the students in the academic extracurriculars or many AP classes would win a big majority of the accolades that night. Particularly high-achieving students could win several by themselves—Justin recalls that one friend of his won three.

When the teacher who would announce the shop work department winner started his speech, he made note of the repetition of names that night. Justin recalls that the teacher “basically said, ‘Look, this is the only name that you will hear by itself today.’”

Every name that the audience had heard in the All-Star Awards, said the teacher, have been students who have received honors, are in National Honors Society, or have earned a Highest Distinction. This kid isn’t one of them. They’re going to be fine in some classes but really excel at Shop.

The teacher continued to say that when he gives the award to a student, he’ll have the opportunity to talk to the past winners. They’ll talk about how winning that award meant something because they actually stayed in Red Wing. “We’re building, working people and everyone else who gets honored by our entire school, every single day, every single week is our academic people who leave Red Wing and never come back.”

The somber tone of the message was certainly received by the students attending graduation. Justin himself said that he felt that there was “an unspoken accusation” to the leaving students that Red Wing raised them and gave them everything, and they’re “going to then take that and go somewhere else.”

And most of the All-Star Students did leave. Justin himself is at Yale. His twin brother goes to Georgetown. Another friend goes to American University, and the student that won three awards attends a private school in Iowa.

These All-Star Students were certainly the best and brightest of their town, Red Wing, Minnesota. Red Wing, a small town of population 16,000, lies along the upper Mississippi River, deep in the cool, wide plains of the northern states. From early on, Red Wing’s economy was heavily dependent upon industry. Still today, 24 percent of the city has a job in manufacturing. The other major employer is Treasure Island Casino and Hotel, located just up the river, nestled between lakes off of the river. But in recent years, Red Wing’s economy has shifted focus to becoming more of a “touristy day trip spot,” according to Justin.

As is expected for a rural town, most of the population is homogeneous. Justin describes the population as “ridiculously white,” and says that most people attend one of three main churches in town.

All of Red Wing’s public schools fall under the purview of Red Wing Public Schools. Three elementary schools eventually feed into one high school, Red Wing High, whose website proudly declares itself to be the “Home of the Wingers,” against a purple background (a “winger” is a purple-plumed bald eagle). Most of Red Wing did not pursue education after high school. As a state, Minnesota generally has a higher percentage of people with a Bachelor’s degree or higher (about 36 percent), but Red Wing’s education rate falls 10 points short of that statistic. Justin recalls that of his graduating class, there was a “plurality that does college,” and most ended up at a Wisconsin or Minnesota state school. Many went on to two or four-year vocational training, likely at the nearby Minnesota State School Southeast, a technical community college.

For the students that study relatively close, Red Wing is very likely to be a lifelong home. But this isn’t the same for the students that left town to faraway schools.

When I asked Justin if he intended on returning to Red Wing, he said he doesn’t. He recalls that when discussing future plans with his friends in high school, there was definitely a strong desire to escape. “The goal was for us all to make it out with the intention of never coming back.”

The clearest reason why capable students are so desperate to leave Red Wing is that from the perspective of growing up in the town, it feels just too small. Justin notes that “the biggest shaker and maker you can be around Red Wing is doing something in the town,” so there’s a sense that staying in a small town would limit your options.

I asked Justin if there’s a world where he would ever return to live in Red Wing.

“I don’t think I can,” he continued. “I think I’d just be too bored.”

***

Isaiah Wright ’24 is from a town about 900 miles south of Red Wing: Durant, Oklahoma. His parents moved to Durant from an even smaller town, Boswell, OK, just before Isaiah was born, because the schools in Durant were better.

Durant, with a population of 18,000, is a similar size to Red Wing, and Isaiah’s graduating class of 205 is just larger than Justin’s. The town is a little bit north of the Red River, which separates Oklahoma and Texas, and the major employer is a casino on the outskirts of town, owned by the Choctaw Nation.

Growing up, Isaiah recalls spending a lot of time with his cousins playing on dirt roads, wrestling in the backyard, fishing, or “other country kid stuff.” Durant has two elementary schools that feed into the same middle and high schools. Because of the small class size, Isaiah says, “I’ve known most of the people that I was really good friends with in that school since I was a kid.”

Similar to Red Wing, Durant, OK has a relatively homogeneous population. The town is predominantly white (about 70 percent of the population), and close to 15 percent of the population is Native American. Like most of Oklahoma, Durant is a deeply red town.

Durant’s population with a bachelor’s degree is similar to that of Red Wing, at 25 percent. Isaiah notes that most of the graduating class will go to Oklahoma University or Oklahoma State University. Many will go straight into the workforce, and some go to vocational schools before starting their career. 

However, when deciding on a plan after high school, Isaiah said that he knew he didn’t want to go to school in Oklahoma.

 “Nothing wrong with any of the schools…but I needed to get out into the world,” he said.
“If I had been going to school in OU I wouldn’t have gone to Canada for fall break. I wouldn’t be casually going to New York City on Wednesday. So I wanted to explore more of what this life has to offer.”

Isaiah was a high-performing student in high school. As far as he’s aware, he’s the first person in Durant school history to go to Yale.

After going to school, Isaiah plans on returning to Oklahoma. “As much as people talk bad about the state, I love it…I want to fix the problems that I see.” Isaiah is unlike some of the other high achieving students who left Durant, who don’t have any hope left for the state.

But Isaiah does not plan on returning to Durant specifically. “It’s too small for me,” he says. “Not enough stuff to do. You have to drive two hours to do anything.” As for some of his friends that attend Oklahoma University, many intend on returning to the town. “A lot of times people from small towns might leave, but they always come back to a small town.”

***

For both Isaiah and Justin, high achieving students with big ambitions typical of a student at Yale, small, rural towns do not have enough. Places like Red Wing or Durant just can’t compete with the metropolises across America, who provide substantially more opportunities for highly-ambitious people than the economically stagnating rural backroads.

From the perspective of urban citizens, who have lived their entire lives in American cities filled to the brim with diversity, excitement, and change, the relatively boring, quiet life of open plains and dirt roads seems to be limiting. So for these small towns, scattered across the wide, open territory of the United States, two questions remain:

How do we keep our students from leaving?

And if we can’t stop them from going, how long will we survive?

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