Sesame Street: Premiered November 10, 1969
Originally published October 7, 2014.
Some moments of gratitude are simpler than others. Some moments do not call for deeper examination or explication. We’re grateful for some things in the simple way we’re grateful for a light breeze on a cloudless summer day. The experience is so basic and so pleasant, we rarely feel the need to examine it any further; we’re satisfied, and that’s more than enough. For me, Sesame Street has always been one of those things. To this day, my kids will occasionally ask me if I like Sesame Street. They’ve both long-outgrown Sesame Street, and yet they don’t ask in a mocking way. When I respond in animated affirmation, they don’t roll their eyes the way you might expect a tween to respond. And each time I give the same answer (“Absolutely!”) with the same list of reasons, and they always seem to walk away from the exchange satisfied. My kids asking that questions is a bit like twanging the coil-spring doorstop behind the bathroom door: it’s the same note you’ve heard a million times, but every once in awhile you pluck it just to assure yourself that it’s there and doing its job. Stability is a rare enough thing in this world, and I sense my adoration for Sesame Street reminds my kids of one of the things I like, but more importantly, it reminds them that some things don’t have to be outgrown.
My mother was five months pregnant with me when Sesame Street premiered. It’s first season was a testing ground, and when the show began to hit its stride in season 2, my parents realized that even at that tender age, I would sit patiently and watch Sesame Street. I obsessed over the Muppets. I sang the songs. I learned to read at a ridiculously early age in large part due to the way Sesame Street taught me to sound out words. In the family Christmas photos from 1972, there are clearly displayed Sesame Street toys in the background. It’s no exaggeration to say that Sesame Street and I grew up together. I was in their target demographic right as the show finally smoothed out the rough edges common to any massive effort. Because Sesame Street was created with a massive mission: to offer free, enjoyable education to every child with access to a television set. By 1969, televisions had become so commonplace that even working poor families owned them. And Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of Sesame Street, recognized that public broadcasting could provide a channel to get information to all children, equally. At that time, all televisions were able to receive public broadcasting, and so the idea of a commercial-free television show that entertained children as it taught them was as revolutionary as it was benevolent. The model they relied on was simple: advertising. They would use the same techniques used by advertisers to teach children: visual appeal, repetition, short-form content, humor, catchy music, and absurdity. If kids could be moved enough to remember the Oscar Mayer bologna song, then certainly they could be just as easily moved to remember the alphabet song. Or simple math. Or manners.
So not only did Sesame Street and I grow up together, it was truly the first place on television designed with the growth of me and my generation in mind. Not to say that there weren’t children’s shows prior to Sesame Street. There were plenty of them. But most of those shows had been designed to simply occupy our time. The best would entertain us, while the majority simply pacified us. It is well-known that Fred Rogers hated television, but started Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood because he felt that children deserved better than mindless pacification. Sesame Street, similarly, as designed with my generation in mind. And they designed boldly. For a toddler growing up in central Ohio, every day Sesame Street exposed me to things I would have otherwise not been exposed to – things that can not be underestimated. Urban environments. Minorities. Foreign languages. Multi-cultural relationships. Multi-generational friendships. Sesame Street was a world I could recognize and associate with, despite looking nothing like the block I lived on. Because the residents of Sesame Street weren’t just actors taking on a role. The missions of Sesame Street was about the stewardship of an entire generation of children. The education they were providing was not just a matter of letters and words and numbers. Sesame Street was about exposure to an entire world outside of ourselves, which is the ultimate goal of education in the first place. And in the early 1970s, my mother knew that she could sit me in front of the television and I would not just be pacified, but challenged, and exposed, and educated. As a parent you can’t ask for much more.
When my son was born in 2002, we didn’t have cable TV or a TV antenna. But we did have a VCR. And in November 2002, when season 33 of Sesame Street began, my mother mailed us a videotape of the first week’s episodes. I sat with my son and turned it on. And there was the same Gordon from my childhood. And the same Maria. And Luis. And Bob. And Bert and Ernie. And Big Bird. Snuffleupagus. There were new faces and slight changes to the street. The format of the show had been altered a little, but it remained fundamentally the same. 30 years had passed, and I had grown up to have a career in the learning industry, always harboring a secret dream to work in children’s television. And here I was, now a parent, returning to a place that meant the world to me as a kid.
Decades pass. Generations grow up and move on. But for a few months in the most tender and formative years, there is a place we can all go for an hour a day and experience a world unlike our own, yet completely created with us in mind. At that moment in November 2002, I knew that even though my son was too young to understand it or remember it, I was taking him someplace special. He didn’t need to ask “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?” Dad knew the way. And returning there was like reuniting with old friends. Old friends who once cared for me very much, and whom I knew would do the same for my children.