Szyperski: Raising ElmoWritten by Shannon Szyperski | | email@example.com
While I was pregnant and on bed rest with my second child, I recall seeing actor Benjamin Bratt on “The Ellen Degeneres Show” relaying a chance meeting on an airplane with the man behind Elmo. Bratt described him as looking like a football player and explained that the Elmo puppeteer revealed himself with the sentence, “I’m Elmo, dude.” For some reason, despite giving birth prematurely just two days later, that 30 seconds of television has stayed with me for the past six years. I just couldn’t help but wonder, “A big football player type? Elmo? Who is this guy?”
It turned out that this guy is Kevin Clash and the story of how he came to be Elmo was documented in last year’s “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey.” Like most every other movie I’ve been intrigued by since having kids, I didn’t get around to seeing “Being Elmo” in a timely manner after its release. However, thanks to Netflix (and an unexplained semi-fascination with who this mystery puppeteer is) I was finally able to sit down and watch it recently.
I was more than pleasantly surprised to discover that “Being Elmo” isn’t just about how a kid from Baltimore made his childhood puppeteering dream come true, but is also about the parenting that allowed him to do so. Clash’s parents are introduced into the equation with an anecdotal tale of destruction gone right. As Clash’s interest in puppets and puppeteering ignited, he couldn’t help himself from transforming the perfect-monkey-material lining of his father’s coat into a prototype puppet of his own.
Although Clash was nervous to introduce his trench-coat-turned-cloth-monkey to his parents, his father responded only with the comments, “What’s his name?” and “Next time, just ask.” Even more acceptingly, his mother beamed with excitement for the talent that had been displayed by the otherwise seemingly mischievous act. The mutilated coat meant nothing to her when so lovingly framed by the hope it represented.
Like most parents, I sometimes struggle to keep the big picture in mind when policing my children’s activities. Sinks full of water and Barbie dolls, scatterings of seemingly butchered and graffitied pieces of paper, oversized patches of missing grass or even just mounds of clothing on the bedroom floor are often representative of something much more than kids making trouble. They illustrate the digging and the testing and the inspiration that fuel childhood dreams. It takes a special kind of parent to recognize magnificence where others only see messes.
We tend to easily recognize the most common and most celebrated forms of young talent and ambition: athletics, academics, music. Yet, as parents we also have to keep our eyes open to the quieter, more subtle possibilities developing within the hearts, minds and hands of our youth. We should all follow the admirable example set by Kevin Clash’s parents, George and Gladys Clash, in cultivating our children’s own talents and interests. They may not be as obvious and as linear as an infatuation for the Muppets living on Sesame Street leading to a career on “Sesame Street,” but it is our job to assist our children in connecting their lifelong dots, whatever they may be.
“Being Elmo” goes on to give further testimony about George and Gladys Clash’s influence on not only their son, Kevin, but also on his most revered creation, the furry red monster himself. In fact, as Kevin Clash explains that Elmo’s essence is that of love, it is also revealed that Elmo is, in fact, the embodiment of Kevin’s parents. He points to his father’s imagination and creativity and to his mother’s energy and excitement for life, all rolled up into one little cute and cuddly red monster now renowned the world over.
As much as Kevin Clash has dedicated his life to bringing well-constructed pieces of material to life, he admits that there is one creation still greater, his own child. “I’ve created puppets ever since I was 10 years old,” he says, “but there’s nothing like making a human being. That’s just amazing.”
Shannon Szyperski and her husband, Michael, are raising three children in Sylvania. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.