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The Sesame Street Phenomenon

When I was still at OCT, I often had occasion to work at the Ministry of Education, attending briefings and conferences. One particular day, I sat beside an employee who was ragging on about her child’s teacher. The woman said, “My child is reading War and Peace and the damn teacher won’t let her read in class. She can do her work and read too.” I suppose I was expected to remark how brilliant her Grade 4 child was, and maybe she was. But although reading Leo Tolstoy is awesome, it is necessary to be appropriate in a variety of places and actually attend to each task we are presented.

Trying not to roll my eyes and be judgmental, I wanted to tell her and her progeny to slow down, and smell the proverbial roses. Or as Heraclitus is reported to have said, “No (person) ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river…” Maybe it’s just baby boomers and their parents, but life moves so much quicker today that often it feels as if we are enveloped in a merry-go-round of images and events.

Personally, I actually charge Sesame Street for the phenomenon of attention loss and the increased frenetic pace of life. When my kids were little and Sesame Street had just come into being, their goal apparently was to create a children’s television show that would “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them.” Endowed by The Carnegie Corporation and Ford Foundation and two years of research, Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) developed a show that reached millions of children.

Unlike Mr. Greenjeans, Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangaroo, Pockaroo and others who maintained a human pace of interaction, Sesame Street was fast, funny and furious. In truth, the animation and colourful sets made the others look dowdy and slow-dare I say boring? Jim Henson’s puppets in particular were thrilling and hilarious: the dour reflective Kermit the Frog, the outrageous pink-boa wrapped and overbearing Miss Piggy, the humming Swedish chef all tossed into the Sesame Street mix that taught about relationships, alphabets, sensitivity and the minutiae of a pre-schooler’s everyday existence.

Even thirty years ago, I recall wondering how will an ordinary teacher, bespectacled, polite and ever smiling, ever compete with this phenomenon. In 30 seconds or usually less, the characters emblazoned in boldly textured costumes immediately grabbed their audiences and taught them something exciting : like the powers of the letter M. Bells, whistles, music, noise, over-sized eye catching decorations ensuring memories stuck because of the mass appeal to the senses.

This is not to say it was bad.

Kids’ attention quickly fades and they lose interest. Sesame established equity, especially for toddlers of poverty, providing ubiquitous television learning; however, there is little in real life that can match their pace.

Interestingly or perhaps prophetically, Sesame Street foreshadowed the fast pace of life that would soon emerge as more technology made information emerge more swiftly, thus avoiding waiting time. (That desire for expedience even effecting road rage as we sneer and yell at other drivers when construction on the road has us fuming. )

I think of the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel. A child was offered something sweet and told that if s/he resisted the urge to gobble it down immediately, a second treat would appear. The wait was about 15 minute minutes. FIFTEEN MINUTES! In follow-up studies, the researchers noted the apparent benefits of delayed gratification were patience, impulse control, self-control and willpower, all of which are involved in self-regulation. I tried this with my grandson, he laughed and persisted a few minutes- which even I could not do. Maybe his tummy was all ready filled with tasty treats. ☺

Everything seems to have sped up.Now we have to be reminded to breathe- in exercise or Pilates classes, to find time in our day to relax. We catch ourselves giggling as the instructor implores us, “B-r-e-a-t-h-e”.

Does anyone remember Hans Selye and his warnings about the impact of stress or The Hurried Child by David Elkind in 1969. We presently believe that it is normal or just part of life to be stressed out as we multitask and, like that crazy juggler with the spinning plates that we once watched open-mouthed Sunday nights on Ed Sullivan, expect to keep it all together, not anticipating the crash. We are so similar to the Cirque de Soleil acrobats hanging upside down, turning ourselves inside out, twirling non-stop, forgetting to take a moment to inhale and exhale.

In a sense, we do feel more powerful, more alive when we think we are accomplishing a lot: we see ourselves as Superpeople, superheroes, able to control, manipulate and maneuver whatever befalls us or the boss throws our way. And in today’s world, we do encounter more frustrations, more bureaucratic curveballs, less means maybe for redress, more opportunities to stuff the issues away,put them on hold, grin and bear it, and get on with the job. And likely, more depression and cynicism, when we reluctantly accept there are many things we cannot control. ☹

Even at home when my computer could receive but not spew out emails, I of course contacted Rogers. Sweetly but disingenuously I was told that there was no problem with the server and to try another Roger’s venue. That I did calmly TWICE, and then again, and again, each time growing in frustration. And each time, serviced by Saleh and then Tyler through live chat- which means you don’t speak but chat with them on-line, each kindly provided me a “link”. The link would not work because my computer could not send emails to contact the link! Finally in desperation, I called Harold V., a friend, knowledgeable in the ways of computers.

Like the doctor who once made house calls in the middle of the night, Harold V. came, spent much time on cleaning up files, answering questions and eventually got around to addressing the problem at hand. I think this typical of people who problemsolve on computers as every aspect of that damn technology fascinates them so, and Harold V. can lovingly discourse on the reasons, possibilities and delights of the hunk of plastic. I try and remind him that users like me just want it fixed and a day of tutorials is meaningless. Once when I worked at OCT, the best instruction consisted of single operations that could be practiced, applied and absorbed so that dulled brains like mine could move on after learning one easy task.

In any case, Harold began to bore into the guts of the machine, who by the way, we take rather seriously, endowing them with personalities and emotions much like avenging angels sent onto this planet to try our patience, incur our swearing and drive us to the edge… Harold said the problem had occurred because my mail program was two years out of date( the machine being an Apple is only 2 years old!) And he would return to clean it up; however, because of the snowstorm that was heavily threatening, he would give it one more try. He suggested we call Rogers again.

We called, and with Harold on the phone, he asked the right questions and John responded appropriately and easily and quickly, remedied the issue. John from Rogers listened.

I reflected on how often we are pawned off or passed on to someone who refuses to hear what we are saying. Likely they are multitasking or cannot be bothered. Best yet, we are angry, filled with seething emotion, smack in the throes of a problem and being put on hold or disconnected doesn’t increase our ability to communicate effectively. However, is there nothing sweeter than a recorded mellifluent voice or musical pap that confronts you while you are pulsing in rage? Talk about stress. We’re like the roadrunners of cartoons in days past scurrying in circles in clouds of dust that gets thicker as we pound our feet in the same place.

Will that little Grade four year remember what is important in War in Peace? Can she possibly in Grade 4? What has the experience taught her about life, handling complex issues and attitudes towards the world? As my early days in the Jane-Finch corridor ( See previous blog “A pair of Ducks)instructed me: it’s all paradox. The more we have, the more confused and frustrated we become, unable to juggle without dropping something of value.

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