When the sign-up sheet went around, I immediately put my name under Kevin Clash’s presentation, “MY LIFE AS A FURRY RED MONSTER: WHAT BEING ELMO HAS TAUGHT ME ABOUT LIFE, LOVE AND LAUGHING OUT LOUD”. Wow! What an inspiration he was.
Like so many other people, I grew up watching Sesame Street. Along with Reading Rainbow and Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street helped define my childhood. What surprised me most about Mr. Clash’s presentation and discussion was when he told us that Sesame Street was NOT designed for me. I grew up in a two-parent household with lots of intellectual stimulation. Sesame Street’s lessons were just part of my learning and development. But Sesame Street, Mr. Clash told us, was developed for those who did not have all of the resources and support that I was lucky enough to have.
I’m a middle school teacher. I love that age because the students are old enough that I can teach relatively sophisticated information, but they’re still children. The school where I taught before I came to Teachers College was in Austin, Texas. It is a Title I school with 90% of the students on free or reduced lunch and over 50% are English Language Learners. Although they are too old for Sesame Street’s lessons (although it is entertaining at any age!), Sesame Street was designed for their younger siblings. Many of my students came from single-parent households. Even when both parents were present, they often worked long hours and depended on the older siblings to take care of the younger ones after school, on weekends and during the long summers.
From Mr. Clash, I inferred that one of Sesame Street’s major purposes is to provide stability for children. All children crave continuity and regular schedules, from the richest to the poorest, and Elmo, Cookie Monster, Big Bird and the others never fail them. For a half-hour every day, on a free television station, children can visit with their friends and feel as if someone really cares about them. Their friends demonstrate valuable lessons—how to share, how to eat healthily, what to do when a parent goes away. They are also there to teach and reinforce what pre-K and primary students should be learning in school, about the alphabet, and vocabulary, and other important topics. But listening to Mr. Clash, I felt as though that was of secondary importance to those who produce the show. In his book, Mr. Clash says, ““You can teach your children all the basics and then some, and they will turn right around and use their knowledge in wonderful, powerful ways you can’t even imagine. That’s the beauty of learning…”
I was so excited when Mr. Clash brought out Elmo. He was absolutely right: you forget the 6 foot tall man with the amazing presence when Elmo is on his hand. Like Mr. Clash had told us, we all reverted to children. I wanted to run up and hug Elmo, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The academic, higher-level questions we had been asking Mr. Clash changed drastically when we talked to Elmo through him—“What’s your favorite color?” (Can’t you guess?) “Have you ever been scared?” (His response about Ricky Gervais was priceless!) “What’s your favorite book?” (Green Eggs and Ham).
Elmo and Ricky Gervais. Is Elmo frightened or having a good time?
I am convinced that Mr. Clash has, in his 20-odd years as a puppeteer for Sesame Street, made the world a better place. I eagerly await for Amazon to send me my copy of his book. I have a few questions: What is it about being a puppet that has created such a transcendent, growing experience for Mr. Clash? What gave him the courage to be a puppeteer in the first place? What did he watch as a child back in the 1960s, and how would it have been different if he’d had Sesame Street?
Check out Mr. Clash's 35th Anniversary interview with NPR at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1816191