Why 'Sesame Street' Is Not 'Hey, Stupid!'

Searching for a gift for my grandniece, soon to be 6, I come upon a picture dictionary called "Open Sesame." It is from "Sesame Street" and evokes memories of the show's beginnings.

Thirty swiftly passing years ago, I taught in a day-care center on Manhattan's upper West Side for $9 a morning. Some days I wondered what I was doing with my life. Had I lost my way? I had left a job as a senior copywriter in a top advertising agency because I preferred to be with the youngsters, but I was not even supporting myself.

Then the front page of The New York Times carried a story about the new Children's Television Workshop, created to teach children the alphabet and numbers, among other things, through the use of commercials. I had a sense of instant recognition: Here was what I had been preparing myself for without realizing it.

The CTW staff invited me to join them. A producer showed me a short film introducing the Muppets. "I think they have a future," he said. Near the film's end, Muppets Ernie and Bert discussed the need for a program name. Ernie suggested, "Hey, Stupid!"

Was he serious? Not yet fully understanding the Muppets' style, I wasn't sure. I vowed that I must name the show myself, lest Ernie have his way.

I continued to teach while contributing scripts and photographic essays, and sometimes I heard children on the playground exclaim with excitement and power, "Open Sesame!"

Sesame Street, I thought, a place where children can learn, and the scenery could look like our city streets here.

In that early time, I occasionally muttered, "I doubt if this show will ever get on the air." Because of limited office space, most of the writers worked elsewhere, so daily exchanges were absent. Educational advisers abounded, causing me to worry that the program could become just another dull offering, like so many I'd suffered through in my own childhood. It was difficult to envision "Sesame Street's" future.

I've long since left the Workshop, and at times I still wonder if I have lost my way. Life's transitions and challenges do not necessarily become easier. But moments such as the one in which I inscribe the "pictionary" for my grandniece remind me that periods of feeling lost can prove to be the best of times: a fertile ground.

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