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Embracing Elmo

Elmo was an intrusion, an upstart, a young punk.

Elmo threatened my beloved Grover, my Alastair Cookie, my Grouch. I can trace my dislike for the little red monster to the mid-90s when his popularity soared. Tickle Me Elmo took over Christmas 1996. I was pregnant with Aidan, our first baby. Somehow, my husband and I found a Tickle Me Elmo at Target before the frenzy hit. We were smug with our find, but found the hype unbearable. It made me eye Elmo with skepticism. I hoped our baby wouldn’t be a big Elmo fan. Maybe he’d fade away and she’d embrace the old school characters?

But Elmo not only stayed, he conquered the world. Sesame Street was carved up, devoting the last 10-15 minutes to Elmo’s World. It wasn’t enough that he giggled his way through every episode. He had to be the center of the Sesame universe. The show I adored as a kid was unrecognizable—and it was Elmo’s fault.

A bunch of kids followed Aidan into our family. You can’t escape childhood without Elmo snaking into the toy box or dotting big-kid undies. I had to admit some of the Elmo’s World episodes were really cute. The way he says “motorcycle jacket” is crushingly cute. When crass comic Ricky Gervais stopped by Elmo’s twin bed to sing a lullaby, I laughed for days every time I thought of the song. I made an uneasy peace with the little monster. And Elmo, too.

Last night, our family watched “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” on Netflix streaming. It’s the story of Kevin Clash, Elmo’s puppeteer. It opens with Kevin as a young boy living in the projects near Baltimore. He adored TV, especially shows like Captain Kangaroo, The Wonderful World of Disney, and Sesame Street. He saw the first episode and his life changed at that moment. He began constructing puppets out of household items, including his father’s wooly black coat. It became a monkey.

Here is where I was totally convicted and a bit thunderstruck: Kevin’s parents recognized his talent from the start and encouraged every step he took. Slicing up a coat would be a huge no-no in most households. How many of us would simply say, “Next time, ask first?” I would be angry at coat-butchering hijinks, saving the questions for later. It makes me wonder if impatience blinds me to my children’s talents. I like to think I’m fully aware of their unique talents, but how often do I stand in their way—even inadvertently?

For example, his mom reached out to a famous puppeteer Kevin saw on TV. She called the puppeteer and shared that her son loved making puppets. The puppeteer took Kevin under his wing, teaching him secrets of the trade. At that point, Kevin (who was still in high school!) had his own Saturday morning TV show, but he was humble enough to know there was so much more to learn. With the help of mentors, Kevin kept working, learning, perfecting his talent. It all led to a fateful day in the puppeteer breakroom at Sesame Street. Elmo was literally tossed in his lap. And it all began when his mom picked up a phone.

What would you do if Elmo were tossed in your lap?

Kevin explained the inspiration for Elmo’s voice and character. Something wonderful always motivates Elmo and that thing is pure, innocent, unconditional love. Kids sense this on a deep and innate level. I saw a screechy, giggly monster. Then, I saw him as totally commercialized. He’s a handy little fellow to peddle useless junk to children. But I suspect from now on, I’ll see him as an extension of an inspirational man from an inspirational family. The interviews with Kevin Clash reveal a humble, gentle, funny man with a beautiful heart.

Here’s where I started to cry: Kevin admitted Elmo is his mother and his father. I can’t imagine a better tribute from a loving son to the ones who helped him find his way.

I highly recommend watching “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” on Netflix or wherever you can find it. Our kids loved it, too. I hope they took away the lesson that creativity, hard-work, and innovation are beautiful things and that it’s okay to go against the flow if you have a dream.

3 comments to Embracing Elmo

  • Mom

    And the anti-spam word was (delight) which is what your Elmo story conveyed to me. I ,too, love the N song. Very cute. Elmo is sweet and and gentle. A much needed respite from all the noise, rudeness and rush of our world these days.

  • We have this on our Netflix queue and I’ve been wanting to watch it. Don’t we all hope we’ll help and encourage our kids to follow their dreams – it’s really harder than it looks isn’t it?
    Awesome write up! I’ll be watching it soon!

  • What a great post Gretchen. I really identified with it and felt the same way about Elmo. I actually met Kevin last summer at BlogHer. I didn’t know his story, it’s so inspiring. I have worried about how I am inadvertently standing in the way of my children’s talent and inspiration.

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