Clarity like Kevin Clash (A.K.A. Elmo)

Last week my husband and I watched a wonderful documentary Being Elmo on PBS’s Independent Lens that told the story of puppeteer Kevin Clash who made Elmo the lovable international icon it is today. As a child who moved to America knowing only one word of English – my American name, I’m pretty sure shows like Sesame Street and my late night show of choice Fraggle Rock contributed to me learning English at what some of my elementary school teachers called lighting speed. This is the beauty of what Jim Henson created. He made learning fun. He made children from different backgrounds and ages feel like they could go somewhere for something positive, educational, inclusive. At Sesame Street, the kids were important; adults had to leave their condescending attitudes at another street.

More than just a summary or a behind-the-scenes look, this was a film about passion and success. It was the story of someone  – Kevin Clash – who had a clear vision of who he wanted to be and what he wanted to do, and immediately got on his way making it happen. I’m 34 years old and I’m still trying to figure out exactly who I want to be and what I want to do “when I grow up.” I’m not just talking about having a good job that pays well (although I understand most people today would covet this), but something that you’d be completely enthusiastic about doing even if you had to do it for free. I mean, there’s many different things I’d like to do (in a book I read recently, I learned I was a “scanner,” which supposedly is a pretty positive thing), but I’ve never had that moment of clarity when I said “this is exactly what I want to be when I grow up” and I certainly didn’t have that vision at 10 years old like Kevin Clash.

Like most successful people in history, Kevin Clash had that clarity, which made it easier not to waver or hesitate on decisions. Their plans weren’t determined by their circumstance or environment. They created their own path with extreme focus, determination and hard work, so that when the stars aligned (like a field trip to NYC during senior year in High School) and opportunity was before them (meeting Jim Henson), they were prepared for the taking. I believe Oprah Winfrey once said something like “luck is preparation meeting opportunity.”

Kevin Clash was doing something completely different from what his peers were doing, but he didn’t buy into peer pressure because he had passion and light and fire inside. He listened to his own voice and stayed the course. He made the life-changing decision to contact the person who could teach him what he needed to know to succeed. And he was bold enough to go to the very top. If you don’t ask, the answer will always be no, right? Unlike Kevin, too many of us learn this lesson a little late in life.

In addition to clarity, passion and hard work, he had two things that I think are also helpful to success: a mentor and a supportive family. When Kevin cut up his dad’s suit because he wanted to use that fabric to create a puppet, instead of yelling at him and punishing him (like I think many parents in my generation would have done), his dad asked what the puppet’s name was and simply told Kevin to first ask next time he wanted his dad’s clothes. When Kevin told his mom that he wanted to contact Kermit Love – the creator of Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus  – to learn how to make puppets better, his mom reached out to Mr. Love. The support his parents gave him must have been a tremendous sense of security for a young man just starting his journey and doing it completely alone because nobody his age was doing what he was doing. If my husband and I ever become parents, I hope we can be as supportive as Kevin Clash’s parents.

In addition to his parents, Kermit Love provided Kevin the kind of mentoring and opportunity that I wished more people could be given today. Of course, Kevin had the talent and that certain something that I’m sure Kermit saw in him, but Kermit met with a high school senior he’d never met before and gave him valuable advice without expecting anything in return. How many Kermit Loves are there today? (A bit of digression here: how cool is it that Jim Henson’s main puppet maker’s name was Kermit, and that Jim Henson made Kermit before meeting Kermit).

To me one of the most beautiful parts of the film was seeing Kevin Clash taking on the role of mentor like Kermit Love when he spent time with a young aspiring puppeteer just like Kermit Love had with him and wrote her this note after their meeting: “I hope to work with you very very soon.” Wouldn’t we all like mentors like this – whether that’s as a young 17-year-old high school student or a 50-year-old starting out on a new career path? Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone or a few people who wanted to do whatever they could to help you succeed? Can you imagine how it would be if we opened more doors for each other rather than excluding, brushing off, judging quickly, streamlining, expecting perfection, competing?

There is a part in the film where you see Kevin Clash crying at his teenaged daughter’s birthday party, and I could only assume that mixed with tears of proud joy were tears of longing and sadness for the important moments he missed in his daughter’s life. That was the sad irony in the film – that while he was bringing joy to so many children all around the world, he was away from his daughter frequently. This is the part you’re reminded that sacrifices are part of success. Being Elmo was also enjoyable to watch because like the character Elmo, the character of Kevin Clash is shown to be lovable as well. He seemed like someone you would know, like someone who would genuinely stop to answer your questions, that the loving and nurturing qualities of Elmo are authentically his.

I thought watching this documentary would just be fun – come on now, it’s Elmo!, but it really proved to stir so many different layers of emotions and thoughts. It made me reflect on my childhood and brought out memories, some good, some bad. It made me feel happy all the while making me feel kind of sad for the loss of childhood and innocence and a certain period in your life when your mom was still so young and your future was still so open. But mainly this film made me feel inspired. It made me feel inspired to get about living my life with a clearer vision, even at this riper age. I didn’t have that kind of vision that Kevin Clash had for most of my life, but who’s to stay that life begins and ends at a certain age. I’m at a moment in my life when I’m wanting to make some serious life changes so this film couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s pretty amusing that I’m still  learning lessons from Sesame Street.

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