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Constance Alexander: Maintaining a connection to and taking pride in our roots, rural or otherwise

Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, of parents who were both city people, I had no notion of “rural” until my brother went to college. I was 7 or 8 years old when I accompanied him and my parents on the trip to State College, to get Roger moved into the dorm and launched as a freshman at Penn State University.

It was the first and last road trip I ever made with my parents, and also the first time Daddy needed a map to get us someplace. (Not that he ever used it.)

He preferred the less-traveled roads. Once into Pennsylvania from old Route 22, we passed a farm here and there, picturesque landscapes, and occasional small towns, some with no stop lights.

Mostly, I remember barns with homemade signs that blared, “Impeach Earl Warren.” Also on view were intermittent posters that said, “Chew Mail Pouch,” which confused me because I interpreted it to mean a person should chomp down on the leather bag the mailman carried.

Child of the ‘burbs that I was the notion of chewing tobacco — and other aspects of rural life — was alien to me.

A recent “Daily Yonder” article entitled Rural Literature Educator Helps Teachers Connect Students to Their Roots sparked these memories because it explored the connections between our perceptions of where we’re from, in comparison to the way outsiders view our world.

Recently, at Kentucky’s other MSU, Morehead State, education students in Ph. D. Alison Hruby’s English Education class revealed that they felt ashamed of their rural roots, although many would return to teach there after graduation. To address those feelings, virtual guest lecturer Chea Parton, Ph. D., presented information about her project, Literacy in Place, which promotes expanding literature curriculums to include works that speak directly to young rural students in middle school and high school classrooms.

According to Hruby, “Even though she only spoke to my students for an hour, she already blew their minds.”

The reaction made me curious about the insights of other readers, so I posted the Daily Yonder article on Facebook and received a response from Linda Hunt Bartnik, a Murray State University retiree and librarian by profession. She checked out Parton’s website and scanned her reading lists of rural-related titles that project positive images.

“All were books written after my youth had long expired,” Bartnik admitted.

She also remembered reading some Jesse Stuart short stories in college and cited the hillbilly dialog. “I was embarrassed by the possibility that I talked like that,” she said.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Upon reflection, I realized that many of my childhood favorites – the Little House series, Anne of Green Gables, The Yearling, Red Pony – had rural settings quite different from my home turf. In my memory, rural characters were noble, hard-working, sensible, and resourceful. They also endured hardships with as much dignity and stoicism as they could muster, like the family in The Yearling.

As I got older and my interests became more sophisticated, I stumbled across Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, which was laced with the loss and tragedy that befell an immigrant family from Norway who settled in the rural Dakota territory. And then there was Conrad Richter’s Sea of Grass, which described the inevitable conflicts between farmers and cattle ranchers on a vast, ever-flowing rural prairie that could drive a transplanted city woman to infidelity.

While I understand that some people from rural regions are uncomfortable with stereotypes promulgated in literature and the media about their turf, others revel in them, including depictions in “The Dukes of Hazzard” or “Beverly Hillbillies.”

As a New Jersey transplant to Kentucky, I confess to discomfort regarding stereotypes associated with my home state, such as this site that insists on naming 10 “absolutely true” stereotypes about the Garden State. There is one, however, that I find accurate, and that is: Give us a diner and a Dunkin’ Donuts and we’re set for life.”

As the Morehead students reflected on conflicting feelings about their rural roots, I hope they took time to revisit George Ella Lyon, former Kentucky Poet Laureate, and her “Where I’m From” project. Lyon, Appalachian native, celebrated her roots in a poem that is known around the world because it lauds the simple things that make her rural home special.

It begins with these memorable lines:

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride
I am from the dirt under the back porch
(Black, glistening
it tasted like beets)

The Daily Yonder is essential reading for those with rural roots, as well as for those seeking information about rural issues that resist stereotypes. Covering news and analysis of crucial topics such as agriculture, broadband and technology, health, the arts, politics, tribal affairs, etc., it provides free subscriptions to newsletters and a weekly podcast.

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