What Sesame Street Means to Me
September 3, 2020
The following post was written by the Cooney Center’s summer intern, Benjamin Prud’homme. We are grateful for his contributions this summer and for making our weekly meetings so much fun.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude for the opportunity to work with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center this summer on a website design for one of their exciting new initiatives. As an autistic person who adored Sesame Street growing up, it is incredible to think how far I have come since then. It means the world to me that I have been able to use my technical skills to support the continued execution of Cooney’s vision.
As a little boy with great strengths and corresponding challenges, I found in Sesame Street both a powerful educational tool and a way of connecting with others. My childhood was defined by early reading and memorization ability, social anxiety and sensitivity, and a deep curiosity in my specific areas of interest. By the age of two, I was able to read fluently, spell long words, and could recite advertising slogans I had seen on highway billboards. I would read for hours to my baby brother James and was always willing to help him study for spelling tests in elementary school. While James would (and still does) regularly make merry conversation and burst into song around the house, I spent hours in my room playing guitar and piano (but feeling too shy to sing by myself), playing on my computer, and looking for money to store in my toy ATM. I was quite nervous to express myself openly when I wasn’t engaging with my passions. When James asked me to come out and play computer or role-playing games with him, I resisted adamantly. But we always bonded through watching educational television, most notably Sesame Street.
I’m one of the enormous number of kids who learned my letters and numbers through “C Is For Cookie” and the rocking classic, “Count it Higher.” But the show also did something deeper: it provided an entire language of character, event, and emotion that allowed me and my family to think and communicate within its crazy, lovable, irresistible terms. When I would get frustrated by misplaying a musical note, my mother would laughingly call me Don Music, the perfectionistic, piano-playing, Beethoven-loving muppet who bangs his head on the keyboard and wails, “I’ll never get it, never!” Don was an early lesson in the perils of catastrophic thinking, and my mother’s connection gave me a perspective on my own rigidity.
Meanwhile, it was lessons from characters like Kermit that helped me visualize what learning to cope with disaster might look like. In our family, it’s the antics of Grover, and the friendly, frazzled comradeship of Kermit, that stand in the highest place. Grover may come in like a whirlwind—”Ahhhhhhhhhh!” —but the steadfastness of their friendship always survives the chaos. When things are going wrong, all one of us has to do is look at the other person, cry out, “stop wreckin’ my place!” (see “The Weather Machine Salesman” episode) and it’s a commitment that, after the storm, we will work things out. As they squabble over pizza slices, what games to play, and whether to watch TV or listen to a record, Bert and Ernie have made me laugh uproariously while teaching me how to collaborate, cooperate, and build a bond with someone very different from me. My mom even wrote a HuffPost Parents piece called “Ernie and Bert’s Mother” about her experience parenting me and James!
I have come a long way since I was a little boy entranced by Sesame Street, but the lessons it taught me continue to resonate. My early fascination with music was stoked by the show’s songs, appearances by celebrated musicians, and sketches about how music is made. With a lot of hard work and a refusal to succumb to “I’ll never get it!” thinking, I developed into a singer and a skilled classical guitarist who studied throughout high school with a Juilliard teacher. Now, I play in ensembles and sings in two auditioned choirs at Vassar College, where I’m a rising junior. A math and computer science double major (and music minor) at Vassar, I have a Count Von Count doll on the bookshelf above my desk. My obsession with numbers as a young boy, nurtured by Sesame Street, has flowered into a passion for math and a love of “counting” akin to the Count’s himself.
Another big force in my growth was Tech Kids Unlimited. Since beginning summer classes there almost 10 years ago, I have worked on various creative and client projects, including a prototype for an app meant to teach students on the autism spectrum about the job searching process. It is through TKU that I’ve been given this opportunity to bring my love of Sesame Street and my passion for technology together.
For the last six months, the COVID pandemic has thrown nearly every aspect of our lives into disarray. Unable to meet face-to-face, we’ve been forced to rely on our devices for work, school, conversation, and entertainment. Yet the experts are always warning us of the dangerous consequences that over-investing in these omnipresent digital trends—smartphones, apps, social media, YouTube, Netflix, etc.—can have. I believe the present situation demands that we seriously consider how technology can not only support but enhance our lives. We can set up Zoom calls for anything from work meetings and school classes to virtual playdates and conversations with missed friends and family. Digital apps and games have the capacity to teach kids important life skills such as teamwork, self-advocacy, and independence in fun and engaging ways.
Sesame Street was created at a time when television was the only readily available platform for digital media. Now more than 50 years since its debut, it is still going strong, having adapted remarkably and resiliently to the rapidly changing landscape of digital media to bring Cooney’s vision to children and families all over the world. The Cooney Center continues to diligently scope out the ways technology can play a positive role in children’s learning and to confront the urgent issues they and their families are struggling with. It has been one of the greatest pleasures and honors of my life to work on behalf of a company that has taught me so much and given me so much joy.
Benjamin Prud’homme was born in New Haven, CT, grew up in New York City, and is a rising junior at Vassar College, where he is a double major in Math and Computer Science with a minor in Music. He was an intern with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center during the summer of 2020.