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There was one particularly memorable moment which for me stands out as a powerful example of the service provided by the work we do on Sesame Street. Sometime in the mid-1980s I performed my “Gordon” show before a large audience at a local college auditorium in Topeka, Kansas, under the auspices of the area's PBS-TV affiliate. My performance that day was highlighted by what began as a casual invitation halfway through the show for a few kids from the audience to come forward and join me but which unexpectedly led to a gradual but irreversible invasion of the stage by every single child in the 500-plus seat theater. After a few feeble attempts to stem the rushing tide, I finally surrendered and accepted this new configuration as part of the event, in the process learning a valuable lesson. Never again would I extend such a tempting invitation to an audience of preschoolers.
During the customary meet-and-greet session after the show, a chair was positioned outside of the theater, allowing for a long single-file line of children and their accompanying adults to approach me one by one. Despite its size and enthusiasm, the crowd was patient, polite, and appreciative in the warm and pleasant afternoon sun. About midway through the line, a young girl of approximately seven or eight years of age slowly approached me, her mother moving rather apprehensively alongside the wall facing my chair. Although the woman’s quiet anxiety had caught my attention, I was totally unprepared for what followed.
As the girl reached me, her arms opened for a hug (one of the frequent and most enviable rewards I receive for my work) and, without saying a word, wrapped her little arms around my neck. I couldn't help but notice the unusually ardent, almost desperate quality of her embrace, and as I looked up to see her mother's reaction to this scene, tears were streaming down her emotion-filled face as she uncontrollably, but silently, sobbed. After what seemed like much longer than the several seconds that had actually transpired, the child released me, I composed myself to ask her name, she told me, I handed her an autographed photo, and the procession continued. When the last person on line had finally been greeted and I began to wrap up my visit, I saw the mother walking toward me, her tears now subsided and her hand extended to grab mine. In the course of expressing her gratitude, she explained that her daughter had been sexually abused by a family member some time ago and that I was actually the first adult male that she had been either able or willing to approach since the incident had taken place. As I looked into this mother's eyes, I held back my own tears and knew that the humbling effect of this encounter would stay with me for a very long time. I also knew that there were countless other families and individuals around the globe whose needs had been and would continue to be met by Sesame Street in ways that none of us will ever fully know. This had become just another part of our unique job description. All the fame, fortune, and artistic fulfillment in the world could not begin to compete with the honor and distinction of such service.