Let the record reflect that I have been 36-year fan of “Sesame Street,” which turns 50 this year, and was recently feted at the Kennedy Center Honors. My affection and high regard for “Sesame Street” goes back to 1983, the birth year of our first child, and continued on through the births and growing up of two more children. The program, and I say this with no shame at all, lingers on in our house even today — years after our kids moved out — when I catch “Sesame Street” as a guilty pleasure. It is a bright and thought-provoking pool of light in the otherwise dreary shadows of today’s news cycles and political Strum und Drang.
In December 2nd’s “Washington Post’s” “Pop Culture” column, “A Friend to Everyone,” Hank Stuever offered a masterful and touching review of “Sesame Street’s” half-century of education and personal revelation. I recommend the column to anyone who has had even a tangential connection to what is far more than just a children’s puppet show. It is must reading for everyone who watched the program, because Stuever reminds us of just what it was that connected all of us — young and old — to that unique neighborhood where learning numbers and letters was fun, and where humans, characters, and emotions of every description were welcome.
Stuever interviewed Sesame Workshop President and CEO Jeffrey D. Dunn, who said:
“[We] have stayed relentlessly true to the mission of helping kids grow stronger, smarter and kinder,” Dunn says. “I’m a huge believer in the idea that society is the result of kids growing up. We’re playing a very long game here, looking 30 years ahead at any point in time. . . . Your kids are going to grow up and be the adults of tomorrow.”
“Sesame Street” can feel deeply personal to just about anyone under the age of 55. It taught us to read and count, but it also taught us about kindness and acceptance. It was jazzy and groovy; it had a loose and wild feeling, even with all that PhD scrutiny on every frame.
Today the show is brighter, faster and somehow zippier, set on a cleaner, spiffier Sesame Street (shot on a set in Astoria, Queens) with a community garden and a recycling bin next to Oscar the Grouch’s trash can. Hooper’s Store serves birdseed smoothies and has bistro seating.
Yet the sense of belonging remains. “Sesame Street” was inclusive before anyone really knew what that meant, the first safe space. It is a friend to everyone
“When people talk to us [about ‘Sesame Street’], frequently it is about the literacy. They’ll say, ‘I learned to read because of it,’ ” Dunn says.
“But the second thing is that everyone sees themselves as somewhat unique, and what they saw was some friend that spoke to them, that let them know, ‘I’m a good person, I’m okay,’ and that there are people who are different, and that’s okay, too. The idea that everybody is deserving of respect.”
You can sense where this is going.
Look around, America. Have you forgotten how to get to “Sesame Street?”
“We’ve never been needed more,” Dunn says.”
I, for one, am in complete agreement. When Dunn says, “I’m a huge believer in the idea that society is the result of kids growing up. We’re playing a very long game here, looking 30 years ahead at any point in time. . . . Your kids are going to grow up and be the adults of tomorrow,” he is echoing my own sense of compounding revelation.
That compounding revelation began with the realization each time I watched “Sesame Street” with (or without) my children that as an adult I should, and could, try to practice being a better person, a more in-touch and in-tune person, a more cognizant person, a person open to the possibility that embracing our differences will make us a better neighborhood of human beings. After all, isn’t that what parents in “Sesame Street” households were trying to instill in our own children?
Why wouldn’t we, as adults, want to be more empathetic, sympathetic, kind, loving, caring, sharing, understanding, tolerant, patient, gracious, supportive, and selfless? We don’t have to dig very deep into our hearts to know that the short-term pleasures, the surface appearances, the superficial achievements…the money, the fleeting acclaim, the momentary highs that come from our daily efforts to “win” or to climb the ladder to a corner office with walls covered in ego photos…are not all they are cracked up to be. We know that. We. Know. That.
And yet, too often we persist along the arc of “getting” because we have lost the thread of “Sesame Street’s” fundamental fabric of life-lessons taught for a half-century by a cadre of puppeteers and their human partners.
At a time when “gotcha” normalization is the notion du jour — a warped social and political model that licenses crude public behavior, the assassination of comity, selfish ends justifying immoral and unethical means, weaponized intransigence, duplicity, outright lying, and that most popular meme, “throwing someone under the bus” — “Sesame Street” celebrates a more child- and adult-friendly normalization: inclusiveness that is openhearted, open-handed, and non-judgmental.
“Sesame Street” is all about growth — the growth of young minds and the growth of adult understanding. As Jeffrey Dunn noted, the program is a very long-game program, like planting a tree not for shade today, but for shade tomorrow; not for fruit today, but for fruit tomorrow (as corny as that may be, it’s nonetheless apt). It is also, if approached correctly, a truly interactive program, one that encourages children and parents or other caregivers to share “Sesame Street’s” lessons, images, and situations.
For many children, “Sesame Street” was and still is, a gateway to what will later be complex adult experiences like insecurity, loneliness, feeling sad or “different,” pent-up anger, even death (notably, Mr. Hooper’s death — following the death of actor Will Lee in 1982). As “Sesame Street” actress Sonia Manzano (Maria) explains, once the decision was made to use Hooper’s/Lee’s death as a teachable moment, the show’s producers reached out to numerous specialists to develop a child-suitable script in which Big Bird, played by the late Carroll Spinney, wants to know why Mr. Hooper died.
Big Bird’s questions are a child’s questions: Will he come back? If not, who will take care of me? Why can’t he come back? But then, who among us has not voiced versions, maybe more nuanced, of those same questions as adults facing the loss of someone who was important to us?
I was 48 when my mother died; I was there, kneeling by her bed, holding her hand, feeling her life’s tide ebb beyond the mortal horizon, never to flow back. I would be lying if I did not admit that as much as I was relieved her years-long suffering had ended, I still wanted her back, still needed the child-soothing comfort of her presence, still questioned the meaning of her death. When my father died at his house in the country in 2003, separated from me by a terrible blizzard that kept me from being at his side, and all I could do was whisper “I love you” through the phone held to his ear by his nurse, I was crushed by the frustration and anger and hopelessness and sadness that enveloped me. It was my own “Sesame Street” moment inasmuch as the adult me was, for those hours that followed Pop’s death, lost and adrift like a child with more questions than answers.
The larger point to the Mr. Hooper episode, and all the episodes before and after, is that while life throws us all kinds of curve balls we never see coming, we are rarely alone in experiencing those unbidden surprises. Happiness, sadness; courage, fears; sunny days, stormy nights; kind people, grouches; strangers, friends; questions, answers; people with my skin color, people with your skin color; people who talk like me, people who talk like you; people who can run, people who need assistance; babies, the elderly; people who are hurting, people who are helping; life and death. When all of these emotions, circumstances, and differences can be discussed in terms children can understand, in a safe place, we are witnessing an anodyne to the often confusing and unsettling world our children (and we adults) inhabit.
For 50 years, “Sesame Street” has been that safe place where learning happens by example, where children can see the positive effects of giving and sharing and caring and participating in life in all its colors, sounds, and forms. Those lessons weren’t lost on me as a parent watching my children process “Sesame Street’s” tutorials on inclusivity, acceptance, tolerance, and patience.
We should look at what “Sesame Street” stands for, what it elevates, what it illuminates, and what it celebrates. It stands for kindness. It elevates understanding. It illuminates our common bonds. And most of all, it celebrates our global humanity. The lessons children the world over learn from “Sesame Street” can be replicated among the world’s adult culture, if we only allow those lessons into our chambers of government, halls of justice, media newsrooms, and corporate workplaces. That is not to condemn all those who work in those places — but we know we can do better.
We’ve seen it work. From Mahatma Gandhi to Jane Goodall, from Greta Thunberg to Jimmy Carter, from the White Helmets to Doctors Without Borders…the list of kind, giving, sharing men and women and organizations is wonderfully long, and they embrace “Sesame Street’s” model of compassion, understanding, respect, and continual wonder.
Echoing Sesame Workshop’s Jeffrey Dunn: “We’ve never been needed more.” Mr. Dunn, you will get no argument from me.