This morning I woke up, as I often do, with a song in my head. Today’s song: “Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here”. That’s right, I started my day singing the Schoolhouse Rock song about adverbs, because I’m cool that way.
For those of you who didn’t grow up in the 70s, “Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here” is a great cartoon and song about a 3-generation family named Lolly who have a store where you find the adverbs you need. They are committed to finding you the best adverb for any sentence plus any qualifiers you need to add some oompf to your adverbs. But wait, there’s more — they also allow you to bring in your adjectives and they’ll refurbish them into adverbs by adding “-ly”. I know, it’s the coolest store ever, right? If you’ve never seen video, you should google it right away, you can thank me later.
Schoolhouse Rock first appeared on TV in the early 1970s. Back then we had 4 TV stations: ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS. There was no cable, no streaming, no videos, and TV wasn’t even available 24/7. It was really a dark, dark time in our history.
Unlike today’s kids who can watch cartoons any time on a multitude of devices, when I was young cartoons were strictly for Saturday morning. You looked forward to this ALL WEEK. Saturday was the best day ever! You’d wake up early and plant yourself in front of the TV in your footed jammies, watching cartoons and eating fruit loops, just like every other kid in the neighborhood.
Even though TV had been in most people’s houses for about twenty years by then, adults had two very serious fears about kids and their viewing habits. First, everyone was pretty sure sitting too close the TV would ruin your eyesight. Every kid in America heard “Don’t sit so close, you’ll ruin your eyesight” at least once a week. It was often followed by, “Turn off the TV and find something to do outside before I find something for you to do in here”. And we all knew “something to do in here” was code for “horribly boring chores”.
The second widely held adult fear was that TV would rot our impressionable brains. That one was probably a justified fear, but that’s another post. To help avoid brain rot, commercial stations had to provide a certain level of “educational programming” for kids, and out of this, Schoolhouse Rock was born. These short cartoons, about 3 minutes long, would run between the other cartoons, like Speed Buggy, Grape Ape and the Flintstones. Instead of just commercials, there were educational shorts between shows, and Schoolhouse Rock was the best of them. It featured funny little cartoons and catchy songs and we didn’t even realize we were learning stuff because they were cool and fun. (Excuse me while I reminisce about the innocence of my youth).
Anyway, Schoolhouse Rock played quite frequently and eventually 64 episodes were created. The episodes fell into several categories including grammar, math, American history, science and more.
It’s hard to overstate how much Schoolhouse is embedded in my generation’s memory. A few years ago I caught several typos and grammar errors in a media piece that had already been extensively reviewed. “You’re so good at grammar,” someone said admiringly. “Everything I know about grammar I learned from Schoolhouse Rock” I responded. Everyone at the table my age laughed and nodded in shared appreciation while the younger folk looked confused.
But I was actually serious. Those early grammar lessons are seared in my brain. All you have to do is say “conjunction” and I immediately think “conjunction junction, what’s your function”. Ask me to multiply by 5 and I’ll do the multiply by 5s exercise. Ask me the difference between a tendon and a ligament and my brain will go right to the Bones episode.
I was re-watching “I’m Just A Bill” this morning and I felt deeply nostalgic about how we used to turn a bill into a law. It’s very different from today’s reality. It was like I was watching someone in a pioneer dress churn butter at one of those colonial villages. “Aw, how sweet, that bill is becoming a law to help people, and without any interference from a billionaire”. The “Three Ring Circus” episode explaining the three branches of government has really survived the test of time though.
Of course Schoolhouse Rock is also flawed. I said to my roommate today that sometimes when I replace a lightbulb I hear in my head, “Mother Edison, worked hard, each night, until the fading light” and added a reminder that we dot the “i” n America for the inventors. She responded, “Schoolhouse Rock failed to mention the part where Edison stole from Tesla”. Valid point. Re-watching “The Great American Melting Pot” they certainly didn’t mention the part where Europeans stole land from the Native Americans and enslaved Africans, that’s not the kind of thing we learned in 1976 when that episode first aired.
My nostalgia around Schoolhouse Rock aside, it really was a genius way to teach kids. We were a captive audience since no one liked to miss their one opportunity a week to watch cartoons. The combination of cartoons and catchy tunes and frequent repetition of the videos ensured that we watched carefully, learned and memorized things. I don’t know anything about elementary school pedagogy, but Schoolhouse Rock was clearly effective when many of us can reference the songs word for word forty years later.
Saturday morning cartoons also taught us about delayed gratification and seizing opportunities. If you missed your favorite cartoon you were out of luck, you couldn’t watch it on Hulu later. Most of the rest of TV was for grown-ups but the cartoons were just for kids, and there wasn’t the subtext of adult themes or jokes for adults, it was something just for us. We loved it.
All the kids pretty much watched the same shows, because there were only a few, and that created a shared culturally frame of reference that doesn’t exist anymore in this time of 70 billion shows. TV was a treat, like a bottle of Coke or a Charleston Chew, not something you had all the time. And cartoons, those were the best TV of all.
I want to hold onto that childish wonder of Schoolhouse Rock. And so I still choose to believe 3 is a magic number, I know what the predicate says Mr. Morton does, I think of my nervous system is like a telegraph line and I just know that somewhere there’s a girl named Janet who is capable of interplanetary travel. And if given the chance, I’d eschew the thesaurus and go see the Lollys for some quality adverbs.
(Schoolhouse Rock, its lyrics and images are all the property of ABC and protected by copyright.)
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