If you lived through the ‘90s, you’ve likely watched at least one episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The misadventures of the Banks family and their wild card relative Will Smith elicit nothing but warm and fuzzy memories for most of us.
But in an incident both sad and hilarious, a healthcare worker in Ambridge, Pennsylvania had an entire school district panicking when she mistook a student’s Fresh Prince-themed voicemail greeting for a gun threat. When she called the student to remind him of an appointment, she heard the segment of the theme song about "shooting some b-ball outside of the school." Unfortunately, she thought he was suggesting he’d be "shooting some people outside of [his] school." Though the incident is pretty funny, it also makes a serious point about the importance of pop culture literacy in the modern world.
When she heard these words, the healthcare worker did what any oblivious good-hearted citizen would: she called the police. In response, the district was placed on lockdown, and when the student was located he was taken into custody. He wasn’t at the station long, but it took confirmation from the District Attorney that his words were innocent song lyrics to secure his release.
A local news station later asked a pair of former Ambridge High students what they thought of the incident. One responded that it was a "crazy mistake to make," but "better safe than sorry." Both young men were familiar with the show and knew the lyrics well, but the man is right: if there’s a possibility people could be killed, we’re responsible for doing anything within our power to prevent it.
Perhaps more telling is the reaction of one of the involved officers. In the video, he easily laughs the incident off, and jokes about the department holding Will Smith responsible for the mix up. He clearly knows the song, and is able to find humor in the inversion of such a well-known cultural product. The best he can say of the incident is that both the health care worker and the student are "embarrassed" by it.
And frankly, it is embarrassing. If nothing else, moments like this remind us how important it is to maintain certain levels of pop culture literacy in our daily activities. This may seem like a tall order, especially considering the broadness of today’s pop culture landscape, but it certainly seems increasingly important to have some familiarity, especially among law enforcement. To avoid incidents like this, if nothing else.
In an era when racial and gender-oriented "sensitivity workshops" purport to train the uninitiated how to act in diverse environments, why not implement something similar for popular culture? It seems that every day, pop culture is finding new and unexpected ways to slip into more "serious" facets of society. From law enforcement to politics and beyond, it’s a language we all share, relate to, and define ourselves through.
Perhaps it’s time to start treating it as a real language, and teaching those don’t know how to speak it fluently.