Sonia Manzano the actress who has played Maria on Sesame Street for the past 44 years is retiring. My first reaction? That pressure in my chest I get when I suddenly learn that something I haven’t paid attention to for ten years or more is gone. Like Star Trek’s Bones McCoy, I am transported to a far away place pretty much ill-equipped to do much more than offer cranky quips. But that’s when I am most aware of my impermanence, of impermanence in general. That Maria who started this journey with me back when I was young is gone. But as Maria leaves that most diverse of streets– Jewish grocers, Hispanic mechanics, African-Americans who are not the best friends or crazy custodians– she leaves us with five important items to consider.
1. Idealism can be a very good thing.
In a 2004 interview, Sonia speaks of the 1970’s as a wonderful time when people thought that they could change the world. Employers responded to idealism. They went looking to hire Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans. And Sonia’s own 44 year run as Maria was fueled by her own idealism. She actually thought Sesame Street would lead to equality for all Americans. The people she worked with were more than family– they were part of a movement whose purpose was to change the world by changing the minds of children. Many people today think of their co-workers as family– and that is certainly a good thing. That should be nurtured. But how many consider themselves part of a team dedicated to something great? If you lack the passion for your work, it’s probably because you aren’t doing what you are called to do. Your vocation. Maybe we need to take the risk– and suffer short-term losses– to make idealism one of our guiding principles.
2. Television remains a mighty medium.
There is so much technological stuff I used that has been replaced: records, cassettes, 8 tracks tapes, CDs, electric typewriters, transistor radios, etc. So many things have become obsolete just in the last decade. But TV is still here. Bigger and better than ever. The internet has not dislocated television. Televisions are now made to accomodate the internet.
Television was significant to Sonia when she was a child. She would sit and watch the old movies and the television shows– The Rifleman, Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best. She wondered “How am I going to fit into this world? Into a world that cannot see me?” Of course there are more Sonias and Marias on television today.
So what is the world that television generates today? In color, non-stop, genres ad nauseam. Where does the child who is still watching television to the tune of four to five hours per day fit in? I wanted to be cool like David Cassidy. Or at least Greg Brady. But my choices were ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS. And only until sign-off. Televisions used to go to sleep like people do. The problem with television may be like everything else– too much. The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca said it best– “He who is everywhere is nowhere.” When it comes to the child and TV, the “when?” and “how long?” questions are less important than the “what?” What world does a child get from his television time? Is that a world we as adults wish him to want to be a part of?
3. Children have a perspective that is well worth considering.
Shows like Sesame Street remind us that kids are still kids. How many 18th century paintings do you see where children are just mini adults? But we still often make decisions about children with data geared towards adults. Today many social agencies must remind us that children need to be treated differently than adults: Environmental Protection Agency, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the Children’s Mental Health Network –to name a few. The ease with which children’s brains soak up information makes it easy for them to keep up with the rapid transformations in technology. They are computer whizzes. They are social media whizzes. They are fluent in that language. What about play? What about self-esteem? What about safety? What about being kids?
4. We need more durability in this disposable world.
Americans generate 220 million tons of trash per year. Why? Because we can. You can easily throw away what you do not value. Sonia talks about the many people who have spoken with her or have written letters or emails– they all feel so close to Maria. She reminds them that things of value last. Perhaps we have emphasized our carpe diem lessons and have forgotten about the importance of the past. Even the ancient Roman Horace, the carpe diem poet himself would be troubled. “Make each day count,” he says, “but remember that nothing can make the past invalid.” The present day that we are seizing was forged in the past. There are consequences. Things do last. Human beings need both the deeply rooted past and the forgiving present. Not everything should be erased. Throw out the bath water, not the baby. Freedom gains its value from responsibility. Winter informs our summers. Darkness informs our days.
5. Puppets are still relevant.
How can we still be in awe of magic when the internet is so magical? In the 1970’s and 1980’s Jim Henson revolutionized the use of puppets. But puppets have been replaced by the animated characters on computer and television screens. Puppets, however, do something that computer animation can never do. Articulate the child’s inner voice. Sonia remarks that the humans behind Oscar, Big Bird, Grover, Cookie Monster, etc. were playing themselves. They were expressing their own neuroses, vitriol, wonder, etc. The puppets came to life because in addition to the fabulous puppeteering skills, there were authentic characters emanating from them. Kids (and adults) may still use puppets in this same way.
And puppets are still irreplaceable in front of a live audience where animation cannot go. The magic comes from allowing a part of ourselves flow into this inanimate object be it only a sock.