I learned to read from Maria on Sesame Street. It was an odd mix of pride and disappointment for my mom, who, as a children’s librarian, had already arranged a plan, a sneaky stratagem, to get me to read before I entered kindergarten. It was a bit of a blow to discover that Maria had already done her job. I was four and had already read my first book about Oscar the Grouch, who was my favorite. He seemed the most stable of the bunch, the only one who didn’t bop around like a sprung coil.
I learned about the moon and tides and what the inside of an eyeball looked like from Bill Nye the Science Guy. The parody of Aretha Franklin’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” at the end of his episode on garbage precipitated our family’s launch into recycling and an on-going headache for my parents, who had to sort it all at the nearest garbage dump. Our car never smelled the same after that.
I can still sing the complete introduction to Reading Rainbow. I knew that I too “Could be anything” if only I’d, “Take a look/It’s in a book.” LeVar Burton had me at hello and so did Mister Rogers with that calm voice that betokened his heritage as a Presbyterian minister. He soothed my savage toddler soul and taught me how to tie my shoes. Shari Lewis convinced me to solve puzzles with Lamb Chop and Hush Puppy. And while I sat crisscross applesauce on our old shag carpet, James Earle Jones’ baritone lulled me into submission with a story that took place Long Ago and Far Away.
Who would I be now without PBS to usher me into adulthood? And it just keeps getting better. During the Downton Abbey heyday, you’d have to make a reservation to speak with me if Maggie Smith was on screen. And Sherlock stole my heart. Give me Benedict or give me nothing at all. To Walk the Invisible promises to be just as big and full of jilted lovers as any of the novels that the protagonists, the Bronte sisters, penned. My English-teacher heart is giddy with anticipation.
In 1969, Fred Rogers went before the Senate and pled for the nation to recognize the importance of educational programming for children. He knew what it meant to grow the next generation into thinkers and puzzle-solvers and world-movers. He knew that teaching kindness in a little heart creates an adult full of compassion. He knew we all needed programs that continued to build on the foundational beliefs of our parenting. We didn’t need more noise, we needed more knowledge. He fought against a tough crowd and he won. My kids would be lost without Arthur and Thomas the Train and Splash and Bubbles and Nature Cat, and yes, reruns of Mister Rogers himself. They are cultivating manners and creativity and patience and play while they watch. If the television’s on, it’s on PBS. We don’t even have cable.
I’m honored to have had both my childhood and adulthood shaped by these greats: to have searched the world for Carmen Sandiego, to have first discovered that a little brown and orange paint can in fact create a tiny tree as Bob Ross promised, to have used countless NOVA documentaries as a teacher in my own classroom, and to watch my children ask questions with Curious George. I do not pretend to know the future of television, technology, or education. If you had told me I’d be replacing my wall phone and its 8-foot spiral cord with a shiny iPhone on which I would spend more time texting that talking, I’d call you a liar. If you’d handed me an iPad in 1989 I would have tried to write on it…with a #2 Lisa Frank pencil. But I do know this: PBS has adapted to the changes of the accelerating world better than me and is helping to chaperone my kids into maturity. And so, for now, I will continue to sing with Mister Rogers, “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day/Since we’re together we might as well say:/Would you be mine?/Could you be mine?/Won’t you be my neighbor?”