Catherine Peng

Recently, I’ve been thinking about my old television set. It was a bulky thing, short and squat. It had one of those rabbit ear antennas and no remote. I still remember the sound it made whenever I powered it on: first, a loud click, then a low hum.

We only received 12 channels on that television. There was channel three, the local Phoenix news. There was channel 61, good for Saturday morning cartoons. But mostly, there was channel eight, PBS — I close my eyes, and I can hear that voice in my head, a kind of familiar that only comes from childhood memories:

“This show was made possible by viewers like you. Thank you.”

See, I don’t mean to get political. I don’t mean for this to be a political piece. But I’ve been thinking about my old television set since spring break because of politics, and I’m trying to understand why I was so angry then, so angry that my fists clenched and I had to pace and the sun was out, but I felt so cold — mad, on a perfectly pleasant day.

Part of it, I think, is nostalgia. When I think about my childhood, I think about those moments in front of that television. Those weekend mornings, those school day afternoons. There was “Between the Lions” and “Arthur,” “Cyberkids” and “Maya and Miguel”; there was “Caillou” in his yellow shirt, there was Elmo and his crayons. These memories, they belong in the same place as Michelina’s microwaveable spaghetti and Pokemon action figures: so far away, but so immediately close. It’s the kind of feeling that quirks up corners of the lips, causes sighs and dreamy-eyed stares.

I know nostalgia like this is dangerous. It’s easy to feel like something in the past was simpler, was better, less jaded, less empty. I have over 300 channels on my television now, Netflix is only a click away. I watch rich housewives insult each other in Hong Kong; I watch murder played out as high drama. But, I don’t want to mistake PBS for the “good old days” because it deserves so much more than that, it has changed so much more than that.

There is something distinctly powerful about learning something for the first time. Whether it’s learning a new word or learning a new way to solve a problem, that moment of connection is a feeling that I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of. I grew up in a privileged household where both of my parents more than believed in the power of not just education, but the power of the human mind. The mind, even as a child, is capable of not just memorizing facts but also giving birth to the greatest of dreams. It sometimes hits me, when I’m standing in the middle of the street — these lights and these bricks and this book in my backpack, these were made into life by people who not just knew what to do but believed that they could do it in the first place.

I remember the shows I watched on PBS as a kid, because they made me believe in myself. Believe that I was not only capable of thinking but also capable of accomplishing what I thought about. Believe that I not only understood the problems before me but could also attempt to solve them. This is not just reading and mathematics and science, this is also how to resolve fights between friends, how to get over embarrassing fears — the kind of emotional literacy that isn’t directly taught in schools but is absolutely essential to human life.

The word “defund” is terrifying. And I’m not going to claim that I’m politically competent enough to understand all the ramifications of those six letters. What I do know is, we threw out that old television set many years ago when we moved into a bigger house and a better neighborhood, and the seller left behind a 70-inch flat screen TV. For the longest time, I thought I had moved past PBS and public programming; I didn’t think of it, except to remind myself that those were days long gone.

But, I have to wonder if my circumstances had been different — if my parents had not cared so much, if we could not afford so much, if there was no “Sesame Street” at breakfast to teach me letters and no NOVA science programs in the evening to teach me about DNA, would I still be here now? Not just at Yale, but any place where I knew I had something important to say?

It’s an unaskable question.