Sesame Street Eyes

Sometimes I miss my Sesame Street eyes. 

Like many children in the English-speaking developed world, I grew up with the show. I didn’t necessarily have an archetypal experience of it: I didn’t have dolls or merchandise of the characters, I didn’t watch it on a color TV. I didn’t know Elmo was red until I was six. But I watched it in a house, with two parents downstairs, and the promise of lunch afterwards. And I watched it with a great deal of curiosity and fascination. It was my first window on a wider world.

The exotic locales were part of the allure. New York City brownstones, fire hydrants turned into summertime fountains, taxis and subways – these became a visual vocabulary of Other, something I desperately wanted to see for myself. I started to look for it on every cracked sidewalk of my own Midwestern city. Eventually I started to see that there were other stories out there that went beyond my neighborhood, my small span of years and city blocks. 

For example, the corner store 7-Eleven where my mother bought cereal and spinach was a small revelation. I looked at the pig’s feet and head cheese and tubs of lard, listened to the accents that had ridden in on currents of economic hope during the Great Migration, and began to wonder. This was a culture that Sesame Street hadn’t shown me, but thanks to the show’s influence I recognized the pattern of Something Different – a story waiting to be understood. 

Each Sesame Street episode built on this need to understand. I saw other children who lived curiously different lives. He herds goats? Wow. She walks through rice fields instead of streets? Wow. They take a boat to a school housed in a hut built on stilts? Wow. 

That little girl carries her family’s water supply from a well? Wow. She studies by candle light, eats rice or pounded corn mush for every meal? Well, she has a mommy and a daddy (imagine Elmo’s voice), just like me. She has siblings – not like me, but fun to think about. Not so different after all. 

In all of this, there was no judgement or dismay, just wonder and curiosity. Each of the children’s lives was portrayed as something happy, whole, and complete. Boats, mules, and walking were just as desirable a means of transit as subways, buses, and cars. Spending your day herding goats or carrying water jugs was just as fun a pastime as baking cookies or watching Sesame Street.

Sometimes, when I read the news now, I worry about the kids I saw on Sesame Street. Their goats may have died during drought. Their parents may have died in a civil war; their siblings may have died from holoendemic disease. They may be in a refugee camp. They may be working in a factory, dying from heavy metal fumes so I can have a computer and smartphone. They may have been raped or kidnapped while carrying water. There may be no water for them to carry.

They may have had their own children at age 14 or 16, while I was studying and just beginning to learn life as an adult. 

They may have died in childbirth or unsafe factory conditions before I graduated college. 

What on Earth happened? And – hum along to the show’s intro, all together now – can you tell me how to get, how to get back to Sesame Street?

Here’s the deal. I don’t regret that early exposure to a beautiful utopia in which herding goats was just as much a learning experience as attending school. It was a fantastic place. I wish I could still see it. I wish everyone could see it, free from malaria nets and industrial smog.

I just wish I would have known, early on, that it didn’t yet exist. Big Bird could have told me: this is what you’re working towards, kid. Don’t stop until you make it. 

Follow the cracked sidewalks, read the newspapers, listen to people’s stories. When you find people with everything, give them curiosity about a world beyond their comfort and experience. When you find people who have nothing, search for the resources they need. You will need to work, and you will need to fight. You’ll need tools. 

Cookie Monster could have taught me about sugarcane and neocolonialism and banana republics. Oscar the Grouch would have covered social justice and liberation theology. Gordon and Susan could have talked about the African diaspora and cotton, the same cotton that eventually pushed people into the neighborhoods clustered around 38th Street in Indianapolis; pushed them right past the American Dream all the way to the 7-Eleven where I watched as my mother picked out WIC-eligible spinach and cereal. 

I guess I learned about each of those things, after all. 

There’s no good ending here. I don’t have words of wisdom or a neat conclusion. I have lots of questions, and none of the right tools to address them. I have a voice, but a third of the time I don’t use it and another third of the time no one is listening. The last third of the time, I’m not the right person to do the talking. 

When I was young, I thought the world was like Sesame Street: my Sesame Street eyes. When I’m old, many decades from now, I’d like those eyes back. Not because of delusion or platitudes or wishful thinking, but because the truth in front of me might match up to the reality of a world where my species genuinely prioritizes the right of each life to exist happy, whole, fulfilled, and complete. 

In the meantime – I have a suggestion. A small change in the familiar Sesame Street soundtrack, to start the newest generation off with the right knowledge and tools. As the Sesame Street end credits run, the new theme should be the final verse of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, by Mr. Bob Dylan: 

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Bob Dylan

Oh what’ll you do now, my blue eyed son?
What’ll you do now, my darling young one?

I’m goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts fallin’
Walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where people are many and their hands are all empty
Where pellets of poison are flooding the waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, and none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountains so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking
But I’ll know my song well before I start singing

And it’s a hard it’s a hard and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a gonna fall
And it’s a hard and it’s a hard and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a gonna fall
And it’s a hard and it’s a hard and it’s a so hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a gonna fall

(Elmo’s voice) Today’s post has been sponsored by the letter “A” and the number “0”!

Published by Marushka

I dream curiosity and write words that change brains.

2 thoughts on “Sesame Street Eyes

  1. An interesting post, but some of us grew up with Andy Pandy, Bill & Ben the flower pot men, which was years before the San Francisco people had heard of flower power :- o)

    All in black & white and before 1953 I didn’t know anyone who had a TV . . . .

    Oh! I nearly forgot Muffin the Mule – check them out all TV history when life was simpler – now that comment is a sign of age :- o).

    Liked by 1 person

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