Forty-five years ago today, I was in a first grade classroom in Overland Park, Kansas (don’t even ask why this East Coast girl was in the middle of Jayhawks country, but there I was). It was 1969, if you’re not in the mood for math. In a pique of progressivism, the administration at my school decided that it would be interesting to wheel a television into our reading lesson so that we, the pioneer children of the Space Age, could be exposed to a brand-new concept in broadcasting: the first episode of Sesame Street.
I remember that day, and I would have remembered it even if NPR hadn’t aired a terrific story about the program and the magical, eloquent, indelible mark it has left on me and every subsequent cohort of first-graders.
For anyone reading this post who is younger than I am, it may be difficult to comprehend the sheer novelty of bringing a TV into the classroom back in those days. Sure, we had visual media (who remembers the old filmstrips with the bell that rang when it was time to advance the frame?), but trust me when I say that this was a whole new world. And the program itself was revolutionary. Deliberately, wonderfully, multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-lingual, multi-everything. A neighborhood that was obviously urban, a little bit edgy (come on, there was a grubby green grouch who lived in a garbage can), and decidedly working-class. It was idealistic, but not preachy. And the messaging elevated PBS and Fred Rogers out of his world of make-believe into a real world where grownups could help children navigate their way through a lot more than vowels and consonants.
Looking back now, I can only imagine the sense of urgency the Sesame Street creators felt as they brought their sound-stage neighborhood to life throughout the public broadcasting network. During the pre-production stages, the world had shifted. The US was deeply involved in the Vietnam War. Northern Ireland was in crisis. People had walked on the Moon. The summer leading up to the first episode had been filled with events that we now recall with phrases and one-word labels: Woodstock. Stonewall. Helter Skelter. Chappaquiddick. The Nixon Doctrine. What images from the news had made their way into the living rooms of the children for whom Sesame Street was developed? What worries and ideas were they struggling to resolve? On the steps of Susan and Bob’s apartment building, in Mr. Hooper’s store, in the alley where Big Bird kept his nest, how many difficult topics were raised and addressed with calm, measured, caring tones? And, in the context of the events of 1968 and 1969, and in all the subsequent years, who could have predicted that an earnest group of performers, puppeteers, and child development specialists from the Harvard Graduate School of Education would have built a legacy that has extended through at least three generations?
On behalf of all the grownups like me, who work in schools and have the unmitigated thrill of watching six-year-olds learn to read as an added bonus to an already fulfilling career, I would like to say, this post is brought to you by the letters that spell every good thing. With thanks to Big Bird, Jim Henson, Joan Cooney, Jerry Lesser, and Children’s Television Workshop.