For the past 17 years, Sonia Manzano has played Maria on public television’s “Sesame Street.” But even before she created that popular role, the name had special meaning to her, thanks to her 6th grade teacher.
School had just let out for the year when Manzano’s teacher, Shirley Pellman, took her and a couple of other students to see the movie, “West Side Story.” More than 25 years later, Manzano still recalls that day: “I was just so touched and so moved,” she says. “I didn’t realize they had made a movie about Puerto Ricans.” Manzano, who is Puerto Rican, identified with the film’s star, Maria, and was devastated when Maria’s boyfriend, Tony, died. By the time she left the theater, she was sobbing hysterically. Manzano vividly recalls her teacher asking, “Are you O.K.? Are you O.K.?”
Pellman recognized the importance of cultural identity at a time when it was rarely mentioned, Manzano says. And Pellman’s concern for her wellbeing was typical of the teacher’s special understanding of the students at her inner-city school in the Bronx.
“She saw you as an individual,” says Manzano. “She was in tune with the emotional needs of her students. If she hadn’t been there, I could have become a depressed kid.”
The trip to the movies was one of several anecdotes Manzano, 38, offers to illustrate the concern Pellman showed for her students. There was also the time when Manzano and a girl who always bullied her decided to fight it out to the end.
“I figured my goose was cooked,” Manzano recalls. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Pellman showed up to stop the battle before it began. “She was like an angel coming to save me,” says Manzano.
Years later, the grown-up Manzano had lunch with her former teacher and discovered once again how well she knew her students. Pellman explained that the little bully who was so threatening to Manzano had alcoholic parents and a troubled home life.
“To get through to your children, you have to know them,” says Pellman, who recently retired after 28 years of teaching. “Just as important as teaching a curriculum is knowing where students are at, what’s going on in the other parts of their life.”
That understanding comes largely by instinct, Pellman says. “I never delved, but when I met with parents, I would sense a lot about them.”
Although Manzano bursts with energy in her TV role, Pellman recalls she was not outgoing as a child—not interested in performing. “She was very quiet,” the former teacher says. “I had to be very understanding, patient.”
Manzano says Pellman once convinced her to overcome her shyness and enter a spelling bee. “She was saying, `You can do it, you can do it,”’ Manzano remembers. Although she lost—stumbling on the word “cocoa”—her teacher remained supportive. “I will never forget how she said it was O.K. She was real nice, even though I let her down,” says Manzano.
That kind of encouragement and attention made a big difference, the “Sesame Street” star explains. “She seemed to take me under her wing and really encouraged me to do things. When someone pays you a little personal attention, you have more of a reason to participate.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Sonia Manzano, ‘Sesame Street’s’ Maria