It was not until I was an adult that I realized that behind Sesame Street is a grand conspiracy.
It’s been on the air for forty years now, and we’re all familiar with the format: short, simple skits involving muppets, neighborhood human cast members and the occasional celebrity. Each skit has an obvious educational point to get across.
Back when I was a kid it seemed to be the same lessons we learned in school: letters and numbers, shapes, colors, playing fair with others, sharing. Familiar, scholastic topics, taught by ridiculous monsters and ultra-kind grownups. I thought these nuts-and-bolts lessons were really as far as they went on the educational side. The rest was just entertainment.
Unbeknownst to me, the Sesame Street writing team was secretly preparing us kids for things a lot tougher than kindergarten-level math. A team of researchers and psychologists were cleverly engineering these little scenes to pass on some profound lessons about the grandest of themes: life, love, suffering and death.
In particular, everybody remembers when Mr Hooper died [Tissues recommended if you watch this clip.] Big Bird had been told that Hooper was dead, and our yellow friend reasoned that he’d give him the portrait he drew “when he gets back.”
The adults were then faced with the delicate task of informing him — and millions of children watching — that Mr Hooper was never coming back, and why it has to be that way. “Just because” was the final reason given by Bob.
I don’t remember if it was my own introduction to the concept of death, but Mr Hooper’s colorless portrait did become the symbol of death in my mind for a long time.
After I had moved on to more mature and more educational shows like Transformers and Inspector Gadget, Sesame Street’s writers took on more tricky issues such as divorce, racism and HIV.
Through Big Bird’s Eyes
Big Bird, I’ve come to realize, was not just a lovable, well-meaning avian who happened to roam the streets and alleys of New York. Sesame Street is loaded with symbols and allegories, and Big Bird represents a child’s limited understanding of the world. He takes everything at face value, unaware of innuendo, prone to constant misunderstandings. He is the conduit through which children can begin to understand the complexity and unfairness of the real world, by following his interactions with the adult characters on the show.
But at the time he was, to me, just a big silly bird, and I didn’t know what I was learning from him. Even young kids soon get wise to the fact that they’re being taught something, and though they may learn a lot, they can’t help but tune it out after a while. For example, no matter what the storyline behind the skit, as soon as the purple stereotype “Count von Count” appears, you know that you’re about to be drilled with a standard one-to-ten countoff (ah ha ha ha!)
In hindsight, the skits that really taught me the most were the ones in which the lessons were not the explicit, academic type we knew from school. They were hidden in the daily goings-on in the neighborhood, the casual exchanges between Luis, Maria, Bob, Gordon and Big Bird.
When you learn something without consciously realizing it, I think it affects you more deeply than if it’s plainly spelled out for you. Those sorts of lessons feed right into your intuition, your sense of the world as a whole, not just the “numbers and letters” area of your brain. Without your knowing it, they may eventually emerge in your gut feelings, your values and worldview.
There’s one lesson I remember very well, when Big Bird learns a disturbing reality about life.
Luis breaks his arm in a fall in his shop. Big bird is very upset to see him in a cast, unable to use his arm for eight weeks.
Big Bird vows to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again. When Luis opens up the shop the morning after the cast is removed, he finds every surface is covered with padding. His stock, cash register and office are all rendered inaccessible, though harmless. When Big Bird shows up he proudly shows off his hard work (which he calls “Snuffle-padding”) but Luis is not pleased. He can’t work at all.
Big Bird cannot accept that Luis could very well fall and break his arm again if he were to remove the padding, so Luis must explain that you can’t go through life being afraid of getting hurt. It just isn’t realistic. It’s okay to get hurt once in a while. Things heal. Trying to make sure you can’t get hurt will stop you from doing the things you love.
To my five-year-old mind, this particular situation was really only directly relevant to Big Bird and Luis. They had reached an understanding, and I knew where both of them were coming from. If somebody had asked me I’d probably have said I have to agree with Luis, it really didn’t make a lot of sense to have padding covering everything.
I imagined it in my own house. It would make it hard to hurt myself, and I’d definitely done that plenty of times. But it would also cover the TV. Unacceptable. Then Teeny Little Super Guy probably came on or something, and that would have been the end of that train of thought. But somewhere deep in my head, in my internal sense of risk and security, I had been secretly educated.
Safety Isn’t Safe
I was going to title this post “A Lesson From Big Bird I Never Forgot.” But that’s not true. I forget it all the time.
For much of my life, I’ve been an exceedingly careful person. There are certain consequences, though survivable, that I would not risk at all. Even now I have a habit of avoiding things when I feel like they may trigger some circumstance I’m not prepared to deal with. Certain phone calls, new endeavors and other to-do items are often left to fester while I find something to do that is more predictable and safe. Of course, I usually suffer for it.
Total security is really quite impossible, but a very old and stubborn part of our brains is dedicated to keeping it the top priority. By overvaluing security, it blows things out of proportion, making us nervous to even speak our minds for fear of rejection. It can make us afraid to try a new hairdo, to dress differently, to take on a new line of work. It’s just Mother Nature trying to keep us safe, but we have to just ignore it sometimes, lest we find ourselves in a padded room of our own.
I’m not a believer in psychics, but I’m going to go ahead and predict some of your future right now, whoever you are.
You will get hurt.
You will embarrass yourself.
You will wish you did things differently.
You will forget things that are too important to forget.
You will lose things you can’t afford to lose.
It can’t be helped, but it’s all okay. Nobody doesn’t get hurt, but no pain lasts forever.
If I’m wrong, let me know. In the mean time I’ll be trying to get the theme song to Teeny Little Super Guy out of my head.