Going to do something slightly different with this post. Before you read, click *here* and that should provide the proper musical background for this post. I could have gone with a number of clips, but this one happened to highlight one of my two favorite cast members - Oscar, not the dog - so it seemed more appropriate.
Sesame Street is 40. Like most urban neighborhoods, particularly those in New York City, it's undergone a few changes and more than a little gentrification. I don't clearly remember it from the days when I watched it, but even from my little sister's days it had changed some when I tuned in so my own little one could watch it. Evolution is a big part of why the show is still going, and still relevant, even amidst the competition. Kids like me and my sister could count to ten in Spanish long before Dora came along.
I learned a lot from Sesame Street, beyond the fact that having no impulse control could be amusing. (Which is why Cookie Monster remains my favorite. If you've never seen it, look up his NPR interview. Yes, Cookie Monster was interviewed by NPR.) I can't begin to quantify the more prosaic academic stuff, as I don't think Sesame Street's designed to actively teach that sort of thing. Reinforce the alphabet and numbers and other learning bits, yes, but not as a substitute for the primary role of parents and educators.
Sesame Street is not a babysitter, but it will help you with the sing-a-longs.
No, I rather think the bigger impact Sesame Street had on me was simply introducing me to the wide expanse of culture at large. Their roster of guest appearances reads as a sometimes quirky melange of the performing arts, and any child watching can guarantee an exposure to things like country music and classical performances (the orange singing opera has stuck with me all these years). That harmonica during the end credits is an example of the more subtle ways they broadened my horizons, taking a simple tune and interpreting it in a myriad of different ways. My favorite remains the slightly bluesy harmonica, but in any version the tune - and the themes behind it -are recognizable. If you've not heard the current incarnation of the theme song you'd likely be in for a bit of a shock - it, like the rest of the Street, has adapted with the times.
It wasn't just the music, either. Big Bird went to China long before I did, and brought a foreign culture home to me in ways other shows didn't. And I would argue still don't - Dora rarely strays that far from her roots, and even when she - or Diego - does, it's usually to visit places and people that are merely slightly transported versions of themselves. The Street is, and has always been, multi-culturalism at it's best. The inhabitants of the Street are just different, and everyone accepts it and for the most part doesn't feel the need to comment on it or analyze it.
Beyond skin tones (or furry hues) there was just a sense that it's okay to be different. There is plain old silliness that is never mocked, always accepted. Sesame Street taught me it was okay to retain that sense of childlike wonder, and that people are people, even when they're green and fuzzy and grouchy. It also reminds me, as an adult, that children are people, too, and it's okay to let them hold onto their ideals and expectations. They'll have to grow out of it soon enough, so while they can they should be encouraged to embrace the idea that their neighborhood includes a guy in a trash can.
As a reminder of that, the man inside Big Bird was once approached by a photographer. Carol Spinney was half in the costume, and he asked the photographer to wait, and let him get in full costume first. He didn't want to undermine the illusion for the kids, didn't want to muck up the idea of who Big Bird is by introducing the man inside the costume. It is that respect for children and their perspective that I think is the lasting impact of Sesame Street.
I hope they have a cake big enough to celebrate all of that.