What’s the one show you remember as a kid? The other day I was listening to NPR as they celebrated 50 years since the first episode of The Electric Company aired. Obviously, I wasn’t alive in the 1970s when the show first aired, but I remember watching old clips of soft silhouettes pronouncing, emphasizing words like THINK, THOUGHT, THERE.
In the ‘70s version of The Electric Company, Morgan Freeman (who we now know mostly as the voice of God), played Easy Reader amongst other characters from 1970-1977. He was clad in an iconic 70s get up: brown vest and silk button up shirt with an oversized shirt collar. He wore a ‘fro, and, in some clips, his glasses were dark and low while he taught in an almost unfathomably cool way.
The Electric Company was one of the first to take on phonics. As one of the show’s writers said to NPR, back then, studies showed that if a kid didn’t really grasp reading in 2nd or 3rd grade, it would follow them during their grade school years. “What we needed to worry about were the people falling behind,” TV writer and producer Samuel Gibbon told NPR. “If you’re falling behind in the second and third grade, your prognosis is not wonderful, so we tried to correct that problem at its origins.”
Last year, Oak’s beloved teacher would sing out words in song. Snaps and “Angry E” made an appearance. As a parent of a 2nd grader who spent a good portion of his learning to read years at home in a pandemic, the relation of sound and words and words and sounds, arrives with more gravity than I imagine they ever will. For six-year-old Oak, this made learning not only manageable, but enjoyable. Music and literacy, who would have thought? Well, PBS did.
Of course, it wasn’t all easy. As Gibbon also expressed, “There was a constant tension between the writers and the curriculum people, as you would expect.”
The year I left college and began working several freelance jobs and in stores, The Electric Company came back on. It had a new logo. It was equipped with modern looking kids, who looked like your average city dwellers. Of course, too old for the show by then, the work was lost one me. Little did I know, two years later I’d be holding a newborn River in my arms, flipping channels, so grateful for the show’s revamp. That version of The Electric Company stopped running in February 2011.
For what it’s worth, shows like The Electric Company may be teaching us more than just how to read; they also serve as a reminder that learning takes on many faces. Like my favorite childhood show, ZOOM, which I watched on repeat, I learned (and can now apply!) the importance of enjoying learning. Lately, the kids have been watching The Babysitter’s Club, which isn’t as overtly focused on learning but, as a friend texted me this morning, “It feels like watching women work while also being single parents, I felt seen.”
(Photographs c/o PBS)