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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 own world.

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 clever joke.

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 Company, too.

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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