Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sesame Street, Forty years of

Look. I'm First Lady. Can I get someone to teach this carpet remnant how to use the First Person?Those who are unaware of your host's unassailable pronunciatory confidence -- most palpable while I'm reading aloud, as in broadcasting -- will be enriched to know that at one time, I displayed no such endowment.
The year was 1969. We had just sent men to wander around on the Moon, and as a kid whose horizons stretched as far as the map of the Ponderosa and as wide as the Enterprise's five-year mission, only one individual's presence was both bane and boon: Sister Mary Margaret Martha Mary-something, the attendant spirit of this young student's First Grade class at Saint Christopher's School.Ambition. We all got 'em.
It was my ambition to read and commit to memory every bit of printed reading material I could find so as to expedite and assist lively dialogue around the schoolyard, dinner table, car seats on family trips, and any other eventuality where social interaction demanded more than nods, grunts, shrugs, or waves.
My home had been furnished with tomes from every age of human endeavor. Mom and Dad seemed to know everything in them, so I had some catching up to do. The children's reference center upstairs was appointed for my sister and me with books of collected fairy tales and fables, fabulously illustrated treatises on dinosaurs, and the smaller red version of the big grey Encyclopædia Britannica that resided downstairs in the adults' Atheneum, where I would some day start devouring bigger books with smaller letters. Just as soon as I had fully annihilated the first rungs up the literary ladder, with brief asides to Superman and Spiderman comic books.
And the damned puerile Weekly Readers at school.
The Weekly Reader, according to its website, produces : "standards-based, research-proven resources to support the development of academic vocabulary, reading comprehension, writing skills, and fluency for all learners. Through differentiated instruction and explicitly leveled materials, we strive to help educators..." and then it goes on about "diversity" and "21st-Century classrooms," none of which would have interested our class filled with New Hampshire Catholic hockey kids with last names that were easily-pronounceable and for the most part of French-Canadian or English/Irish derivation.Sister Mary Margaret DoppelgangerEach member of the class would read aloud one paragraph from the Weekly Reader as we shared the weekly assignment every Friday during Reading class. The front page of the handout consisted of three or four "paragraph" (read: "sentence") stories about current events (sorry, no Viet Nam conflict or Stonewall riots or Mansons). Some lucky readers got to read both the headline and the lead paragraph. One or two of my classmates would consistently stumble, but we were all well-behaved and patient, particularly those of us who regularly showed facility with the written and spoken word and politely helped when one of our classmates chanced upon an unfamiliar word or ungainly diphthong.
I enjoyed reading aloud, since it afforded me an opportunity to show everyone my familiarity with every single word.
Except for one.
And that word was "sesame."
I don't remember the exact wording of the headline, but the whole story welcomed to television a new program for youngsters set on a street in New York City, with such characters as "Big Bird," "Kermit the Frog," "Oscar the Grouch," and something called "Cookie Monster." "It's called SEE-same Street," I read.
A beat.
Then, a rustling of papers, a snicker, and a chuckle that grew infectious throughout our regularly respectful classroom.
Never had anyone ever laughed at a mispronunciation before, and the uproar directed at me seemed to forever right that particular wrong.
Sister Mary Margaret Martha Mary-something cleared her throat -- a lithe throat enhanced by the black crepe of her coif, now that I look back with a grown-up's eye -- and offered a soft correction: "SESS-a-mee."
"Oh," I exhaled. "Kinda like Sinbad? Like 'Open Sesame,' right?"
As luck would have it, that rejoinder saved my arm from many a malicious whack in the schoolyard, and I was assured the role of steady second pick in kickball. But I also pursued impeccable articulation with unconventional vigor. Within weeks, I was presented by Sister Mary Margaret Martha Mary-something as some sort of reading-aloud prodigy and delivered a disquisition concerning flying mammals -- bats specifically -- to the Fourth Grade science class and to Mother Superior, who had invited several idle novices and the visiting Diocesan Bishop, who blessed me and commented on the immodesty of the length of Sister Mary Margaret Martha Mary-something's habit.
Eventually, the whims of the Moirae would lead me to read aloud professionally at radio stations, including some in Fall River Massachusetts, my birthplace as well as the birthplace of Joe Raposo, the Portuguese-American composer who worked for Sesame Street, wrote the theme song and other classics, like "Bein' Green."
Rumor has it that Sister Mary Margaret Martha Mary-something left the priory soon after and opened a chain of Leather'n'Lace Boutiques. At least that's the story that I heard.
And good for her.

(This presentation includes photographs of Audrey Hepburn, First Lady Michelle Obama, Sally Field and Shelley Morrison.)

No comments: