Last night, I went to a Q&A with Joan Ganz Cooney. The name doesn’t ring a bell? Well, that’s okay, because I didn’t know it until fairly recently, either, but she is one of the people behind Children’s Television Workshop, and thus, Sesame Street. Yes, behind the scenes, which is part of why she’s one of my new heroes.
The other parts are that she’s whip smart, still incredibly sharp, and so dedicated to what she does. She was interviewed by Leslie Stahl (of 60 Minutes) at the Museum of the Moving Image. Admittedly, it can be hard for me to get excited about going to a museum in Queens after work, but this was one of the best events I’ve been to in ages. Ms. Cooney was inspiring and hearing about how Sesame Street began firsthand… I mean, how cool is that? And, friends, Bob and Susan were in the audience. They were only three rows in front of me.
There are a lot of reasons I found what Ms. Cooney had to say illuminating, both personally and professionally. What she and her team did back in the ’60s was create something that she referred to as “educating, edifying, and entertaining” using the newest medium of the time, and filling a huge gap in education and entertainment for children. It’s not entirely unlike the place where publishing for children is today. Our goal might be slightly different (story at the fore, rather than education), but not much so. And we’re at the edge of another new frontier, needing to figure out how to engage kids and fill the gaps.
But the personal part of what I learned tonight is just how effective Sesame Street has always been at achieving its goals and never, ever talking down to children and never misrepresenting life. Ms. Cooney referred to the episode in the ’80s that dealt with death, and as a kid who was watching during that time, I knew immediately, even though she never named the character, that she meant Mr. Hooper. She told us how their researchers and cognitive psychologists told them that, yes, kids could handle hearing about death, but that it had to be done directly, and the most important thing for young kids to understand about it is that the person is not coming back.
I don’t remember watching that episode when I was four, but I remember knowing that Mr. Hooper died. I very very vaguely remember talking about it with my mom. And as Ms. Cooney spoke about their work on that episode, I realized that it was most likely when I learned that death meant someone wasn’t coming back. My grandfather died rather suddenly not long before this episode would have aired, and I can only imagine how much it must have helped my parents talk to me and my younger brother about death. How powerful something that’s crafted with such care and so specifically to help teach children can be.
So, thanks, Ms. Cooney, and Jim Henson, and Bob and Susan and Big Bird and everyone for what you’ve given to all of us. I hope my friends and I can look back on the work we do with similar pride in 40 years.