As someone as interested as much in the sorts of people we as a society think valuable as in the processes that we use to produce more of those we value, and fewer of those we don’t, I was was struck by a brilliant post last week at Like a Whisper on a topic that might not be suspected of raising deep points about both these values and how we shape people to realize them: Sesame Street’s 40th anniversary. Like many people born in the past 50 or so years, I grew up on a steady diet of Sesame Street, initially in black and white in the back streets of Broken Hill, and later in full colour in the beach-laden northern suburbs of Perth.
I remember, quite vividly still, a particular episode that has made its way into family lore. My parents had decided that they needed to make a break from a gritty mining town in the outback of Western New South Wales for somewhere that at least had grass (really), or even water in visible supply, and took me on a trip with them east, touring through the eastern part of the state, through Tamworth (my first sight of real greenery), Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour, and all the way up to Lismore, before torrential rainfall ended any more northerly ventures. While in Coffs Harbour, Sesame Street was doing its usual share of child-minding while my folks got on with other things. We were in some very cheap motel that included a coin-fed television, what we might think of as the early version of pay tv. Or maybe it was coin-fed power in the whole room, which we also had in some places. I was watching an episode in which one character–I remember it as Cookie Monster–was taking a photo, with a lot of elaborate set up and fanfare. Just at the crucial point, after counting “1,2,3 …” to take the photo, which was followed by a flash and the photo, the whole TV went “poof”, and the screen image disappeared. I was sure this was part of the show, and waited for the photo to show up. It didn’t. I waited, patiently. For seconds. And seconds. Nothing. Then I went around to the TV to see what was happening: where had Cookie Monster and that photo gone to? I prodded. I probed. I hit the TV, something we often had to do to get reception right in the Hill. I changed channels. To repeat the full parental repertoire, I probably even swore at the TV, but then again, maybe not. I was 8. Still no photo, and no Cookie Monster. Wtf? I remember my mum appearing, perhaps hearing the TV off and some mild thumping activity. After a while, she started laughing, somewhat hysterically eventually. The 20 cents we had inserted into the TV had run out. The TV was off. I simply refused to believe this. Deep down, I still do.
Professor Susurro’s full post at Like a Whisper on the 40th anniversary and current very stupid attacks on Sesame Street includes just over a dozen clips from Sesame Street and is well worth a full read, not only for the nostalgia it evokes but for the reminder that it serves as to the amazing educational quality that Sesame Street has provided for over 40 years. But here’s the excerpt and clip that I want to end this post with:
Sesame Street’s 40th anniversary is a testament to what television gets right: providing entertaining, relevant, educational programming especially to children who may be under-served in their schools. Perhaps its most controversial act was daring to show a multicultural, multi-lingual cast that would appeal to children across socio-economic, linguistic, and racial backgrounds, something that does in fact frighten the folks at Fox News but is needed as much today as it was 40 years ago.
The clip features Billy Joel and Marlee Matlin; I’m a little surprised that the clip isn’t closed captioned, but maybe someone digging around a little could find a version that is. There’s so much in just these four and a half minutes that it’s hard to know where to start, but I’ll leave that to others. Having identified with Oscar for much of my life–perhaps as much as with another half a dozen characters from the show–that’s where I’ll end this post. Except to invite your own reflections.