Last week, Amie White’s 2nd grade class at Southview Elementary was kind enough to extend me an invitation to come and read to and have lunch with them, so I gladly took them up on their offer.
We read a book about the life and lessons we can learn from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and, a credit to Mrs. White – the kids knew more than I did, a sign of a phenomenal teacher).
We then proceeded to head to Southview’s oddly-arranged cafetorium, half cafeteria and half auditorium, where I sat with my young friends and held court on several hard-hitting issues of importance: whether or not ice cream was good, what we wanted to be when we grew up (I’m still not sure) and what was wrong with Auburn’s football team this year (several dozen second graders and I can’t answer that one, either, other than “They were bad.”)
What gave me pause during our dining conversation was when one young girl told me she had gotten her cell phone taken away for talking back to her mother.
I reminded her that such behavior was wrong (though I talk back to my mother a frequent amount, but usually only when she’s quoting Fox News at me), and then I was struck with what should have been my first response:
“You’re in second grade! Why do you need a cell phone? Who do you call – Elmo?”
The girl and several of her classmates stared at me with blank expressions.
“Who is Elmo?” they asked, with genuine confusion and mystery.
Who is Elmo, indeed.
While the boisterous, red-furred puppet is known to my generation and a few that came before us – he and the rest of the gang located on “Sesame Street” is largely unknown to this current crop of youngsters.
I repeated the name, hoping to get some flicker of recognition in their eyes, but, alas, none was to be found.
I tried other names: the Count (who was always my favorite), Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird.
I had begun to give up hope, but upon saying “Cookie Monster,” they began to light up.
“Thank the good Lord,” I thought to myself. “They know Cookie Monster.”
And what did they say about my gluttonous, blue-furred pal?
“He used to eat lots of cookies, but now he only eats some cookies after he eats other foods like carrots and broccoli.”
Carrots? Broccoli? Being eaten by the Cookie Monster?
Such statements seemed like blasphemy to a Reagan-era child like myself, but, sure enough, a quick Googling back at the office confirmed my fears: Cookie Monster had been co-opted into preaching the merits of balanced meals.
I wasn’t allowed much reaction time to that news, as the kids then began to tell me the shows that they did watch.
They were all on Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon, and I had never heard of any of them. In fact, I don’t think some of them contained any real words, just random letters and numbers garbled together (either that, or I don’t speak second grader fluently enough to understand my young friends).
The era of Sesame Street has, apparently, come to a close, as its target audience of youngsters has moved on to other, less educational based content.
Soon, Big Bird and the others may have to pack up and move to another locale, going the way of Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangaroo and even ol’ Howdy Doody – left to gather dust in the basement of adults’ memories.
So many of us grew up on “the Street.” We learned our letters, numbers and other vital facts for everyday life from the good people at the Children’s Television Workshop.
We laughed strange laughs with our friend The Count and pondered what it would be like to live in a garbage can like Oscar did.
I can even recall tuning in a few weeks to PBS one summer in college when I learned that Big Bird’s nest had been destroyed by fire.
My roommate gave me a few odd looks, but joined me in watching the crisis, until, at the week’s end, former President Jimmy Carter (and the good people at Habitat for Humanity) had built Big Bird a new nest (though it did look suspiciously like the old one – exactly like it, in fact.)
Children’s tastes change – no one can dispute this.
I shouldn’t expect that kids today would still enjoy a program I watched more than 20 years ago now, but … on some level, I suppose I do still expect that.
Sesame Street has always represented the brighter, positive and, most importantly, thoroughly educational viewing experience for youngsters and it comes on public television to boot – public TV being brought to those kids by viewers like us.
But, these kids don’t know the Street.
They don’t seem to want to know about it, either.
So, give the small ones their cell phones and let them call Brobee from “Yo Gabba Gabba” or coax Spongebob from his grill at the Krusty Krab.
Me – well, I’ll keep the Cookie Monster on speed dial – just in case we need him again.