Sarah Churchwell: What I learned from Big Bird and Oscar

Related Topics

Sunny days, sweeping the clouds away, on my way to where the air is sweet – like millions of children who grew up in the 1970s, I can tell you how to get to Sesame Street. It may be 40-years-old, but little about the show has dated: I have it on good authority – two nephews and a niece – that Cookie Monster still gobbles cookies mumbling "Om, nom, nom", Oscar is still grouchy, and Big Bird is still played by the same puppeteer, Caroll Spinney, who has played him since the show began.

For two generations, Sesame Street has introduced us to our first friends, from whom we learned, even as we laughed. We learned to count with the Transylvanian Count, as well as with the hapless waiter who always announced "three... peanut butter... sandwiches" before he fell and dropped them. We learned the answers to Ernie's endless, pestering questions, and that Bert shouldn't roll his eyes in impatience: just like my big sister, in fact. Sesame Street was a pioneering educational TV show, intended to help underprivileged children. But even those of us middle-class kids spoilt for pedagogical choice couldn't get enough of it.

The show's success has led to so many scholarly studies that it is the most-researched show in television history – andto my mind, it is unquestionably the most important children's TV show of all time. It didn't just teach us the alphabet. It taught us tolerance and multiculturalism: the muppets and adults are all different colours, different backgrounds, and all together in the neighbourhood. We learned English, yes – but a little Spanish, too.

It taught us kindness, patience, to believe in each other – and in our friends' apparently invisible friends, like Mr Snuffleupagus (or to give him his full name, Aloysius Snuffleupagus). It taught us to respect curiosity, Ernie's existential questions, and Big Bird's wide-eyed misunderstandings. It taught us that Oscar shouldn't be grouchy, but also to accept that he was unlikely to change.

When I was little, I loved a picture book starring "Lovable, Furry Old Grover", called The Monster at the End of this Book, in which Grover is terrified to learn that there will be a monster at the end of the book, and begs the reader not to turn the page. The curious child keeps going, and they discover together that Grover was the monster all along. When I was six, I called this hysterically funny; now I can call it metafiction, and teach it at university. There is nothing that Sesame Street can't teach you, if you let it.

The writer lectures in American Studies at the University of East Anglia

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform