Last night while Maya & Ben went to see some of their friends in a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” (which they said was fantastic), Joshua and I watched the documentary “Being Elmo” about Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who brings Elmo to life on Sesame Street.
As documentaries go, this one is particularly wonderful for those of us who remember the start of Sesame Street, who revered The Muppet Show and who walked around in shock years later at the news that beloved Muppets creator Jim Hensen had died at the age of only 53.
And it is the wonderful story of Kevin Clash, who, being a young black kid from a poor section of Baltimore was not the likeliest of puppeteers. The thing is, nobody told Kevin that. He was fascinated by the muppets of Sesame Street and would watch specials in which Jim Hensen talked about how the muppets were built and gave basic puppet making tips. Kevin started making ‘muppets’ of his own, beginning with a monkey made primarily from the furry lining of his father’s trench coat. Without his father’s permission. And here’s the ingredient that I believe weighed as heavily in Kevin’s success as any other. Rather that chastise him for ruining his father’s coat; rather than telling him to stop wasting his time making silly puppets, his parents marveled at what he had done. His mother said she knew that Kevin could make enough money with the puppets to by his father many more coats. They supported him from the beginning. When kids at school made fun of him for sewing and “playing with dolls”, Kevin’s passion and support from his family reduced their teasing to mere background noise. Imagine what a different world we would live in – whether you are a muppets fan or not – without Kevin, Elmo & Sesame Street, of which he is now a producer, director and head puppeteer.
Is there something your child is passionate about that is seen as unproductive or odd? Kevin’s parents could have told him to focus on his ‘studies’. There were no black puppeteers when Kevin started out & most people would have said the surest way to a better life would have been college and a good job. Most people would still say that. Thank goodness the Clash family didn’t. Thank goodness they supported Kevin’s unique passion for puppets.
Near the end of the documentary, Kevin says that there will always be people who tell you you won’t succeed at something, especially if that something is unusual. He says there will be obstacles but that if you love what you do and stick with it, good things will happen. This is what self-direction & unschooling is all about; recognizing interests and facilitating them, whether they become lifelong occupations or not. The ability to believe in yourself and know you have the support of those around you is priceless.