G Is for Greatness

Disaster strikes on Sesame Street, to wonderful effect. 

You may be distressed to hear that a hurricane swept away the sunny skies over Sesame Street Monday morning. On Tuesday, the news got worse: Viewers learned that Big Bird’s nest had been completely destroyed by high winds while he was making shadow puppets and drinking birdseed milkshakes with Gordon, Susan, and Miles. “My home! My nest! My everything!” lamented Big Bird. Gordon first offered the kind of belittling reassurance kids hate to hear when they’re upset, but quickly corrected himself with “You’re right, Big Bird. It’s not all right. But it will be all right.”

On Sesame Street, as in life, sometimes things go dreadfully wrong. Sometimes adults say the wrong thing. Some people, like certain muppets, are grouchy (I have always loved Maria for that), affable to the point of defeat (poor Bob had quite a rough time with all the monsters sleeping at his place during the storm), or disabled (like Bob’s hearing-impaired friend, Linda, and the young girl who directed a game of Simon Says from her wheelchair Wednesday morning). The rigidly enforced cheeriness of child actors and other artificial creatures on shows like Barney never visits Sesame Street, where real children’s tears are captured, celebrated, and soothed to a song that repeats, “It’s all right to cry.”

If, to my mind, children’s programming on public TV has been diluted beyond mush by the recent proliferation of blandly moralistic cartoons pandering to preschoolers’ least interesting obsessions (dogs, dragons, and directly representational illustrations making their way through mind-numbingly simple plots), the high standard Sesame Street set for the past 32 years must be responsible. It’s not just that I learned the alphabet from the show or that Oscar the Grouch, Mr. Hooper, and Maria each had a hand in shaping my personality. But as a child, teacher, and parent, I have always been impressed by the panoply of live and animated, recycled and newly produced, colorful, musical, familiar, and exotic vignettes populated by muppets, regular human characters, child and famous adult guests, inanimate objects and abstract images, with and without narrative, all brought to us by the letter X and the number eight. (This week it’s also brought to us by America Online, LookSmart, and Pfizer, the company that says it “brings you the letter Z, for zebra and, of course, Zithromax!”)

When the birth of my son gave me an excuse to return to the program as an adult, I had some trouble appreciating it. Nostalgia for the show I had watched as a child prevented me from embracing new characters like Telly, Baby Bear, and, especially, Elmo. His constant referral to himself, high-pitched, whiny voice, and repetitiveness had me disliking the furry red monster nearly as much as I will always dislike Barney, the fascist purple dinosaur, and Clifford, the sweet but uninteresting big red dog. But my son, like every toddler I have met since, fell in love with Elmo. Perhaps it was the readily available Elmo dolls and strollers that filled our Brooklyn neighborhood. More likely, it was his ability to say “Elmo” before he could convey much else and the fact that Elmo wasn’t much more linguistically advanced than he was. (The Sesame Street Web site answers the frequently asked question “Why does Elmo refer to himself in the third person? Won’t this teach kids improper English?” by explaining that Elmo is 3-and-a-half and hasn’t yet mastered proper English.)

In any event, my son taught me to admire the show for its ongoing creativity. If our imaginations suffered a blow when Mr. Snuffleupagus appeared in the fur to those who had previously doubted his existence, they can blossom again while watching Elmo engage Dorothy, his goldfish, in provocative dialogue and play.

This week Dorothy (who usually speaks through Elmo since like most goldfish, she does not have a voice recognizable to non-muppets) posed questions about birds, drawing, and games. The first two topics emerged from the hurricane story line: Its protagonist, Big Bird, learned to draw to help him work through his feelings about the loss of his home. As I watched the first three episodes of the hurricane series with my children, I continued to be amazed by the way the show’s creators weave so many educational topics and approaches together, not only holding the attention of their young viewers but actually teaching them something in the process.  

Any decent teacher knows that capturing and holding the attention of your students wins half the battle. Judging from the preschoolers I’m helping grow at home, most of the fare on PBS succeeds on that count. But the insipid, moralistic content of shows like Clifford and Dragon Tales (I was appalled to discover that this one comes from the folks at Sesame Workshop) stops there. The “Big Ideas” behind each episode of Clifford (BE A GOOD FRIEND, BE KIND, BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, PLAY FAIR, SHARE, WORK TOGETHER, etc.) pass for pre-kindergarten educational programming on PBS. Sesame Street teaches similar lessons but with funk and nuance and, more important, with far more substance. As they watched the first episode of the hurricane special this week, children learned about hurricanes, geothermal and weather maps, the seasons, the letter X and names that end in it, moving, animal homes, counting to eight and visualizing groups of eight, the meanings of the words “danger” and “surprise,” X-rays, the concepts of “up” and “down,” how to handle a blackout and conquer their fear of the dark, making shadow puppets, various types and behaviors of birds, and, of course, the letters of the alphabet. Tuesday added crying, drawing and constructing homes with blocks, sharing, the number 12, friendship, love, the letter G and words that begin with it, etc. Most of these concepts were covered in several formats, for the folks who create the show understand the second key to good teaching (thank you, Elmo): repetitiveness, also known as reinforcement. These lessons were smoothly folded into the story line as Big Bird and his friends confronted the loss of his nest and went about making repairs. By Friday, the large yellow bird will return to his home, secure once more in the knowledge that imagination and cooperation, words most of us learned from the show, can get you through just about anything.

In my own preschool days, when Sesame Street debuted, the director of my nursery school worried that all of those clips that fill the show would erode children’s attention spans. Perhaps they did for me: The narrative structure of most other programs that my children watch regularly fails to hold my interest. If I want to enjoy a decent story with them, I may watch Arthur (a more richly engaging show than the other cartoon stories but still vastly less useful to children preparing for kindergarten than Sesame Street) or a great movie like My Neighbor Totoro, but I’m more likely to sit down with a good book and a child in my lap. Sesame Street doesn’t need its occasional special story lines (another recent one sent Oscar’s worm friend Slimey to the moon). Even without them, it’s still the best children’s show available on broadcast TV.