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Images of an 80s Child
PBS may be
dying financially and politically, but it's alive and kicking in my
heart. Some of my earliest television memories are of PBS shows. The
station directly carried me from my pre-school years through grade
school. Then I left it behind with my Barbies, until discovering another
side of PBS.
My first PBS memories are of Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street, and Mr. Rogers.
The Capt. came on at daybreak, a time of day I don't see now unless I've been
out all night. I remember wearing my plastic-footed PJs, rubbing the sleep
out of my eyes, and eating my cereal with the man I found very poorly dressed.
His bright red suit and striped shirt went well with his straw-like hair and
mustache though. It was cool he could talk to kangaroos too. I was living in
Pittsburgh at this time, so I had to be four or five. My brother must have
been watching too, but I don't remember him. Me and the Captain were in our
Sesame Street came on in the afternoon, because I remember I got to watch it
less often when we moved to Kentucky and I started first grade. I had to go
to a full day of school then. The opening song made me happy, with the kids
and the characters running through the grass in a park that looked like one
we went to in Pittsburgh. Bert was always too uptight and his fascination with
pigeons befuddled me. Ernie was a sweetie who got yelled at by Bert too much.
At least he had his rubber ducky to console him. Cookie monster was my kind
of guy, even if he was sloppier than I when eating his cookies. I had a stuffed
animal of him. Oscar was funny, and I never believed he was as grouchy as he
wanted to appear. It was cool that Maria spoke Spanish. Kermit was the man
because he also starred on the Muppets. I felt bad for Big Bird because no
one believed him when he told them about Snuffaluffagous, but I liked being
privy to the secret. Also, it made me feel better that he snored because I
did too. I remember thinking the kids that appeared on the show were stupid
because they hardly said anything.
I can't remember when Mr. Rogers came on, but it was the end of his "working
day" because he changed out of his uncomfortable shoes and exchanged a
jacket for a cardigan when he arrived to his house. All the while he'd be singing
in his passive voice that matched the blueness of his sweaters and home decor.
I used to imitate the way he put on his cardigan and I'd toss my sneaker from
one hand to the other before putting it on, just like he did. After a greeting
in his living room, we usually passed the stoplight and fish tank on the way
to his kitchen and sandbox. Sometimes Mr. Rogers took us out on the front porch
to sit on the swing and his neighbors would visit. Other times we had to take
the trolley to that silly world of make believe with the bad puppets. The trolley
ride was fun though. Whether I watched the show with someone or not, I always
felt like I was with a group because of the way Mr. Rogers addressed his audience.
Mr. Rogers impressed me as a cool and collected guy, very gentle and knowledgeable.
This show made it through the transition from Pittsburgh to Kentucky, because
I remember doing the shoe toss in both places.
I thought they filmed all these TV shows of my early childhood in Pittsburgh.
Getting Mr. Rogers signature at a summer fair there reinforced this belief.
Plus, the opening of his show looked like "Roadside America", an
indoor miniature village in Pennsylvania that my family stopped at when we
went to my great-aunt and -uncle's mountain cabin. And I already mentioned
the Sesame Street park familiarity. Even as I got older and watched other PBS
shows in grade school, I now realize I subconsciously thought even they were
shot in Pittsburgh.
Grade school was marked by time-outs in book work to watch PBS programs. First
and second grade the Electric Company was very cool, but by third grade I felt
insulted that the teacher thought I was still interested in watching letters
be unscrambled by a chunky, bald cartoon guy, even if he had a dopey sweetness
about him. I loved the Spider Man segment though, so I dealt. When fourth grade
rolled around and we still watched it, I complained out loud. Some people agreed
with me, and I seem to recall watching it less. Maybe I just tuned it out when
it came on.
3-2-1 Contact entertained me until third or fourth grade. The segment with
the mystery-solving kids that formed "The Bloodhound Gang" was my
favorite. The two girls and guy crime-busted in a big city, and they had a
catchy song. The greenhouse-looking set of the show reminded me of the most
fascinating room at my pre-school in Pittsburgh, full of plants and things
to get into. I remember the day two of the Contact girls showed us how to find
a hole in a bike tire by submerging it in water and watching for the bubbles.
It's strange to think at one point in my life it may not have occurred to me
to do that. Using the 3-2-1 Contact title was also the perfect way to tease
friends about crushes: "Here's Shea (holding up one finger) and here's
Josh (holding up the same finger on my other hand) -- 3-2-1 CONTACT (bringing
the two fingers together and twisting them like heads when kissing)." Really
Then there were the body shows. Third grade was Mr. Goodbody. It featured a
hyperactive man, I think it was Richard Simmons, dancing around huge models
of organs in his skin tight suit that detailed the inside of our bodies. I
remember my classmates and I thought the costume risqué because it was
as if he wore nothing, and it hugged certain parts of his body more than we
were used to seeing. Learning what happened inside when I hiccuped interested
me quite a bit though.
We watched Body Works every year, but I got especially sick of it in fourth
grade when Mrs. Hood still made us get out of our chairs to do the wimpy exercises
that the boy and girl in short, tight shorts and blue and yellow t-shirts were
doing. I think she realized the class's annoyance, because I don't remember
doing it after one day in particular when we had just watched the Electric
My PBS life came to an abrupt halt in fifth grade. I changed to a Catholic
school and we didn't watch TV there at all. Since I was outgrowing the kids
shows I didn't watch the channel at home either, except when Mom or Dad tuned
in to Masterpiece Theater. A year went by before PBS had something new for
me - Anne of Green Gables. I loved this mini- series, as did my friend Michelline.
She wanted to be Anne, but I just admired the character because I liked being
who I was. Michelline called me her "bosom friend," like Anne and
Diana. I felt like it took a lot more to be a "bosom friend," but
I still had a good time at Michelline's slumber party. I'm infamous for minimizing
my relationship emotions today, too.
Degrassi Junior High was an eighth grade discovery I watched occasionally until
one particular episode. This girl found herself being pressured to have sex,
and the guy was giving her all the persuasion lines that I'd either heard on "Whose
the Boss?" or had been told about in sex-education. She responded with
the answers Tony told Samantha to give, or that I was given as advice to get
out of a situation in which I didn't want to be. I decided not to watch the
show anymore if it couldn't be more original. It relieved me when the girl
didn't give in though, because I was going to be pissed at her if she couldn't
be stronger and do what she wanted. Now I look back and think, why did all
the guys know those lines? Why weren't they taught to be more responsible and
caring? Why was it our job to do the rejecting and the boys' to do the pressuring?
I hope sex education has evolved.
The latest phase of my PBS life has now arrived, after a regression in 12th
grade to Sesame Street when my boyfriend at the time took me to see it live
on Valentine's Day. It was better that time than when I went in fourth grade
for a friend's party, because at 9 I felt I was too old for such things. At
17 I realized its good to nurture the kid in you. Now I rarely watch PBS because
cable channels like Discovery overshadow its nature programming, and I found
the MacNeil-Lehrer Hour dry. Currently the best part about PBS for me is the
memories, and I support it for that reason. It seems my old friend is dying,
but I hope it finds its fountain of youth because I want a new generation of
kids to grow up with the same nature of great memories. PBS bonds my generation.
Put a group of Americans my age together, mention PBS and we each fill in things
the others have forgotten - parts of a particular show's song, a character's
name, or the resolution of a particular episode. Most of us were disappointed
when we heard Cookie Monster had been replaced by Veggie Monster and that Snuffaluffagous
had come out of hiding. It was no longer Big Bird's special secret with us.
The same type of innocent, educational programming doesn't seem to guide and
glue American kids today. I hope something worthwhile is defining them as individuals
and as a generation.
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