Tag Archives: sesame street

Life on the Sesame Street

“People on “Sesame Street” had limited possibilities and fixed identities, and (the best part) you weren’t expected to change much. The harshness of existence was a given, and no one was proposing that numbers and letters would lead you “out” of your inner city to Elysian suburbs. Instead, “Sesame Street” suggested that learning might merely make our days more bearable, more interesting, funnier. It encouraged us, above all, to be nice to our neighbors and to cultivate the safer pleasures that take the edge off — taking baths, eating cookies, reading.” – Virginia Heffernan, The New York Times Magazine

You’ll definitely hear me harp on Sesame Street from time to time.  Sesame Street was a gift to my development as a child, teaching me lessons that I didn’t even know would be integral to life both as an adolescent and as an adult.

Here are some lessons that it taught me.

Put Down the Ducky

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This musical number is seemingly innocuous – like most of Sesame Street.  Ernie keeps hearing squeaking noises when he tries to play the saxophone, and it’s because he tries to play while holding onto his rubber duckie.  The song tells him to put down the duckie.

I was using the phrase “put down the duckie” long after I watched this is a child; it was clear to me that if something is preventing you from doing what you want to do, then you need to learn to let go of that thing in your life.  This can apply to bad habits, addiction… anything that keeps you from “playing the saxophone.”  Sure, you can learn to accomplish your goals while compensating for this weakness that you refuse to give up, but if you know deep down inside that it’s time to let go, you’ll still hear that little squeak when you play.

This metaphor mixes up a little bit with the lighter concept of “it’s okay to let go – if it’s good for you then you’ll be able to pick it up again.”  We know that Ernie’s relationship with the duckie is not in itself harmful – he just needs to let go of it for the moment.  His friend assures him “you can just pick it up when you’re done!”

Being Proud of Yourself Doesn’t Mean You Need to Bring Others Down

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This lesson needs to be taught more.  I hear so many people talk about how important it is to have pride.

“I’m proud to be [insert race here]!”

“I’m proud to be a [man/woman/other]!”

Then they go and disparage others.  “The white people do not understand blah blah”  “You’re cisgender so blah blah.”  “This meeting is only for [my group that I have pride in].”

In Fuzzy and Blue, Grover expresses his pride in being born fuzzy and blue. (“It’s just the way that I grew…”)  He is joined by Harry Monster, and then Cookie Monster (“me just so fuzzy and blue!”) who enter seamlessly.

Then comes Frazzle.  Frazzle is orange.  Frazzle is a very different addition to the Sesame Street cast – his appearance is extremely fierce, with bright orange fur, a strong, thick unibrow, and an inability to speak English without a thick gurgle that renders him incomprehensible to non-monster ears.  Grover is reluctant at first – or perhaps simply trying to comprehend the pull that Frazzle appears to feel for being involved in a song that is about pride in being blue.  (“All right, all right, just thought I’d mention it!”)  Then, although the song is practically over, they restart it for Frazzle and modify their refrain:

“We’re fuzzy and blue (and orange!)”

They do this with no outside prompting, no mediating parent, no supervisor, and no union intervention.  It’s true – pride in oneself is important, and that involves knowing what it is you’re proud of.  I can be proud of being tall – does that have to mean that I’m disparaging short people?  No.  Short people can be proud to be short, and I can agree with that pride without undermining my own pride.

Frazzle is different, and his friends support his difference and his pride in being different without any insecurity about themselves and what they value.

Interestingly, everything Frazzle says sounds the same (something directly addressed in the show).  Who hasn’t made that comment about a foreign language before?  Frazzle represents a foreign identity even to Sesame Street – which has monsters, but most of them are friendly colors.

Oscar the Grouch

Oscar

Oscar the Grouch makes it very apparent that Sesame Street is not a perfect place.  He is a misanthropic, grouchy monster that lives in a trash can.  He doesn’t enjoy anybody’s company, nor does he want anything to do with learning any lessons.

Oscar is as close as it gets to being a social pariah – my memory isn’t amazing, but as far as I can recall he is the only character whom other characters chide and to whom they even suggest that he needs to change his ways.  His life doesn’t look very nice, which could be a cautionary tale… or it could even suggest that Oscar is crying for help by making sure to surround himself with the people of Sesame Street.  Whichever it is, Oscar’s grouchiness doesn’t keep the people around him from talking to him or involving him in their conversations.

Sesame Street – with Oscar – is now a complete image.  It is not an idyllic, utopian place, it’s a ghetto.  Yet, the show is adamant that the place is amazing, with everyone wanting to know “how to get to Sesame Street.”  The people (and monsters) of Sesame Street aren’t trying to leave –  instead, their reaction to the hand they’ve been dealt is to watch each other’s backs.

The relevant links can be found below, but I want to take this opportunity to make a point.  I’m not saying Sesame Street is a gem to the world of television (it is, but I mean that it’s not my main point).  I’m saying that the kid shows you put your child in front of have lasting effects that go beyond the obvious – and certainly go beyond that stage of development.  We remember the things we see, and they DO stick with us.  So the next time you let TV do the babysitting… it’s worth thinking about what you’re letting your kid be inundated with.

Either that or communicate regularly with your child.  Crazy talk, I know.

NOTE: Old School Sesame Street and modern, HBO Sesame Street are not the same beasts.  As a result, some people argue that old school Sesame Street might not be suitable for children today, as a lot of the concerns modern parents have were not voiced or even present back then.  We’re talking a depressed talking elephant that only one character can see, a homeless misanthrope, and a scene where Cookie Monster eats a pipe.  If these sound shocking to you, then you know not to watch.  If it just sounds like pre-hipster age television, then enjoy.

Or again, you could show it and then just talk to your kids.

Relevant videos:

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To People Who Don’t Read

A lot of young people like to make the excuse that they “don’t read.”

Word?

Reading books and writing are among brain-stimulating activities shown to slow down cognitive decline in old age, with people who participated in more mentally stimulating activities over their lifetimes having a slower rate of decline in memory and other mental capacities.

Translation: How do you not read? It’s literally the other way to communicate.

“No, no, I don’t read for fun.”

That’s like saying I’m bad at math because I don’t spend my evenings graphing parabolas.  Like mathematicians are at home begging, “Mom, after dinner can I recite the quadratic formula? I love the way that everything divides by 2a!”

Even so, if you know that not reading is the reason you’re awful, then doesn’t it make sense to start now?

Here’s the thing; there’s some guff on the internet that says something about how “you don’t even use what you learn in school, anyway” or something like that.  That’s complete malarkey – a successful person will figure out how to use most of what they learn in high school to some degree.  But even if you accept that flawed premise, here’s a stone cold truth: Reading and writing are NOT on the list of things you won’t need.

I tell this story to everyone who tells me they won’t need reading and writing skills.  In my first job at a bowling alley, I worked with a coworker/supervisor (I’m not telling which because that’s too specific for creepy internet stalkers) who wanted to advertise a special deal: Pepperoni pizza for $1.00 a slice.  He had the bright idea of making this special appear on the score screens of all 32 lanes in large letters that would march across the screen.

“Peperroni Piza, $1.OO per slise – munday thru thirsday!!!”

Not only is every word except “per” and “thru,” (an acceptable abbreviation) misspelled, but he even had a typo on the part with “$1.00,” because he used O’s instead of zeroes.  Yes – dude misspelled a number.  I was mortified and had to fix it immediately, and of course, anyone who saw it was probably similarly mortified.

I’m not stopping the story here, though, as a cautionary tale where all listeners go “Well, I’m not THAT bad!”

The reason I tell that story is to deliver a message: If you write without capitalizing, it’s exactly as noticeable as this situation.  If you can’t write three sentences without showing why you didn’t get a diploma, it will look exactly the same as if you had written that pizza sign.  If you can’t read in the work world, it will be noticed and seen in exactly the same way as I, and now you, look at this guy.  There is no way to reveal a lack of reading and writing skill that isn’t embarrassing, except in school.

In my head, I feel like even youths caught up in gang activity might even be like “I’m gonna trust you to have my back?  I’m gonna trust you with a gun?  You didn’t even pass English 1, man.”  After all, if you can’t sit still long enough to learn how to read with people paid to help you, how are you going to fend for your life in this world?

I’m not saying people not good at these things have no value; I’m saying that there’s no way to hide it or ignore it.  It’s not like a scar you can conceal.  In most cases, within minutes of knowing you and hearing you talk, reading your texts, or viewing your Snapchat, employers, friends, enemies, and everyone else will know whether you would sell “piza” or “pizza.”

Here’s the kicker: Even people with similarly bad or worse spelling and grammar can tell when someone can’t write.

“I never read when I was young, Mr. Phan, so it’s too late for me.”

A lot of people seem to think that if you don’t start reading at a young age, then you’ll never become good at it. And I see why they might think that.

According to studies done by the University of Oxford, “Young brains do tend to be able to absorb new information better than old ones, although not necessarily to integrate it as well with what has been learned previously.”

That’s why little kids can’t take over the world. Little kids can learn faster, but older people use what they learn better.

That’s why I’m better at arguing than you are.

However, learning how to read at an earlier age doesn’t mean a rooster’s crow.

“Being taught to read at an early age (such as five years old) does not ultimately result in better reading skills, and if it replaces more developmentally appropriate activities, then it may cause other harms.”

Studies conducted in 2015 indicate that

“there is no evidence to support a widespread belief in the United States that children must read in prekindergarten or kindergarten to become strong readers and achieve academic success.”

You can start NOW!  So what if it’s harder for your mind to absorb?  You’re also older – perhaps more mature now, and better able to suck it up and do the work.  It’s never too late to improve your reading skill.  Gorillas are doing sign language, man!

“Mr. Phan, I don’t have any books!”

Get a library card, homey!  Plus, I’ve got some more tips and tricks for you:

1: Borrow books from people.

The reason you want to do this is because, for many people, reading isn’t attractive because it’s a solitary activity, and we like to be social. If you borrow a book from someone, you instantly have someone else who also read the book, so you can talk about that one epic scene where the warrior slapped the king in the face. For bonus points, ask teachers! They’ll probably let you borrow some stuff!  You also will make more friends who also read, a really important thing that can help if you need to be surrounded by a positive atmosphere.

2. Read your interests.

Don’t be afraid to re-tread some of your old interests. See a movie recently? Read the book. Reading a book of a story you already know lets you not stress out about understanding the plot and instead can let you focus on other things – like the differences between the two.  Find the sequels.  Find other books by authors of books you already read.

3. Watch all of your movies with subtitles.

Even if you think you’re ignoring them, your brain will actually do a lot of work without you knowing. Also when you don’t hear something, you’ll instinctively look at the subtitles before bothering anybody with questions. Lastly, hearing the words being used will help expand your vocabulary and also help you recognize difficult words. That’s right, you can watch Terminator 2 and still increase your reading level.  Arnold definitely taught some people how to say “cybernetic organism.”  Netflix offers captions for almost everything.  This is great for rewatching movies that you’ve already seen.

4. Pronounce long words.

Sound that stuff out! I can’t stand it when someone’s reading in my class and they get to a word longer than two syllables and stop dead.  Everyone in my class now knows what I want them to do: Be brave. Sound it out, say it the best you can. If you say it wrong, say it wrong forever until someone teaches you the right way. You gotta keep a growth mindset. You’re not going to learn how letters work in the awful, complicated world of English unless you’re wrong first.

This will also help you if you learned to read by sight (memorizing words) vs phonetically (sounding them out.)  Reading by sight with memorized words leads to students being stopped in their tracks at even the most rudimentary words.  It’s like teaching someone to skate and then expecting them to be able to dance – and then finding out they never learned to walk.  Sound out the words.  Do that old-fashioned thing in Sesame Street where they combine two signs into one word.

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5. Google stuff.

Google is a verb here, but it works as an adjective too.  Ask Google what stuff means.  Most devices will allow you to do this in seconds.  “Okay Google, define equilibrium.”  It’s over.  There was a time when if you had questions about something you read, it meant consulting this:

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This is a real photo from the place in which I grew up.

Those days are gone.  In seconds you’ll know that equilibrium means “a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced,” AND is also an underrated action movie with Christian Bale and Sean Bean about a dystopian world that destroys books and drugs people into happy submission.  How can encyclopedias compete?  The only possible answer is: by looking so wonderfully photogenic.

It’s never too late to learn to read skillfully… until you embarrass yourself.  Blogs are a great start.  So I suppose, while you’re increasing your reading level, enjoy your stay, and feel free to click around!