Mass media has an unmistakable impact on our impressions of people and places.
Take, for example, shows like Baywatch and 90210, which color our perceptions of Los Angeles. When I think of the City of Angels, I see endless sunshine, luxury, and Kardashian-esque mansions.
When I think of The Big Apple, songs like Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” come to mind, painting a bustling metropolis where only the hardiest of citydwellers can survive.
And then, there’s my little one-horse town in Western Kentucky…. And we don’t get a lot of clout from mainstream media or television personalities.
In fact, the most notable mention we’ve received came in the form of a Saturday Night Live sketch back in 2005, and we haven’t been able to shake it since. (You can view it here courtesy of NBC, but heads-up: it’s a little raunchy.)
The sketch was called “Good Morning Meth,” featuring a band of tweakers hosting a faux-morning show as a parody of rural America. The opening tune cheerfully proclaims that “From Muhlenberg County to the great Northwest, everybody’s doing that crystal meth!”
Don’t get me wrong, I laughed when I first saw it back in 6th grade. But I’m from Muhlenberg, so I’m allowed to laugh. Honestly, I’m not even sure if SNL was intentionally spoofing my hometown or if they just found the name somewhere and ran with it. Either way, it stuck.
And now that I’m an adult, I realize how that sketch has had a far wider impact on my community than I ever noticed as a kid. It christened us as the “Crystal Meth Capital of the World,” and honestly made a laughingstock of the whole Bluegrass State.
It wasn’t all parody, though. The truth is that Kentucky ranks in the top ten with the highest opioid-related deaths, with nearly double the national rate. Painkiller and heroin addiction have reached epidemic levels, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. In fact, a recent study shows that 2 out of every 10 Kentuckians personally know someone who uses heroin or meth, with rural Kentuckians twice as likely to know drug abusers than people from suburban or urban areas.
The dark reality is that drug abuse is a huge, huge problem here. But thanks to that stupid skit, now people just want to make fun of us.
In the same way that La La Land showcases the magic of LA or the way that “Seinfeld” depicts life in New York, “Good Morning Meth” takes all of the worst tropes of rural culture and slaps my hometown’s name right beside them.
Just take a second and imagine what impression that must leave on students and young adults in rural areas like mine. How can you grow up in a community that everyone associates with drug addiction and not feel some sort of impact from that reputation?
Even if you’re like me and were fortunate to grow up in a middle-class, substance-free family, you live knowing that a lot of people still look down upon you because of your ZIP code. As if it wasn’t hard enough to just deal with the drugs and poverty in the first place, let’s add an extra layer of judgment, too.
It’s a huge reason why The Belief Gap is so real for students in areas like mine. I live and teach here, and everyday I am inspired by my students’ persistence and hard work in spite of their own tough circumstances. Even still, there’s a huge disparity between what I know they can achieve and what people around us believe they can achieve.
After all, there have been renowned actors, musicians, businessmen, and athletes to come from my neck of the woods. It’s clearly possible to make it big even if you’re from a place like my hometown, because it’s been done countless times before.
And beyond that, there are clearly other families like my own that still live in this community – families who may not be rich or famous, but who still turned out okay. We’re educated, friendly, and definitely not crystal meth addicts. But you can’t capture all that in a 4-minute parody sketch.
That’s what I find so frustrating. To the rest of the world, students and young people who choose to stay in communities like mine are written off simply because they “couldn’t get out.”
It speaks to a larger narrative that those of us in education must combat everyday: poverty is not destiny, and a person’s ZIP code should not predict their success. Whether it’s an inner city or rural America, the idea that students need to leave to make something of themselves is just wrong, and it shows just how much work we have left to do.
Photo via Flickr, CC-Licensed.