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MISS NANCY was the perfect dual role model for her time, which was a postwar America still imagining its children might grow up well-mannered, still imagining teachers as authority figures, and still mesmerized by the simplest actions observed on a new invention called television.

She looked through her magic mirror and claimed she could see everyone sitting at home. Who knew otherwise? The medium was still young, and children were still innocent. Miss Nancy helped keep them that way, at least for a little while.

She was a role model for young mothers, who were still stay-at-homes when the doors were opened to "Romper Room." Everybody remembers the show didn't just entertain kids, it taught them. But it also taught their mothers, who saw Miss Nancy in pearls and perfect hair and almost never breaking a sweat dealing with half a dozen youngsters each day who had adrenalin bursting out of their pores.

"Miss Nancy."

"Just a minute, please."

Some kid would be yanking at her sleeve while she was trying to chat with the children at home.

"Miss Nancy."

You wanted to throttle the kid, or at least stick him in a corner. But Miss Nancy gently - there's the key - persuaded the kid to wait while she talked to the larger group. And thousands of moms took note and had their own sense of gentleness, and patience, validated.

She was also a role model for teachers - or, at least, TV teachers. Couldn't that nice Miss Landers, who was Beaver Cleaver's teacher, have been Miss Nancy's protege? Didn't they wear the same string of pearls?

When the news of Nancy Claster's death arrived Friday, it brought back warm and fuzzy memories for a lot of grown-ups who grew up with her and whose own children later marched out of "Romper Room's" doors and found themselves on "Sesame Street." Thus, it made us wonder: Could her old show survive in today's TV world?

"Let me ask you this," one local TV executive was saying over the weekend. "Do you own a remote control? When is the last time you watched a commercial? You've got it down to a science, don't you? Two minutes of watching something else while the commercials are on. Do you think kids haven't figured that out today? They've got less patience than anyone."

Much has been made about the use of sound bites in television news today. They used to be 30 seconds or longer. Now they're 10 seconds or less. They're corresponding to Americans' diminished attention spans. But, if adults can't concentrate for more than a few seconds, why should we imagine our children can?

In the glory days of "Romper Room," Miss Nancy could let the kids work out their energies - there they went, banging on drums; the drums were to "Romper Room" what accordion players were to T. Oliver Hughes' "Collegians" on Sunday morning TV - but they could also let their adrenalin pump for long minutes at a time as kids watched at home.

Could such things happen today, or have viewers' senses been permanently juiced by all the jump-cuts, the burst of colors, on "Sesame Street" and all the other programming beamed into American homes an average of nearly eight hours a day?

Bert Claster, the pioneer Baltimore broadcaster who produced the show, said his concept was simple: Kids like to watch kids. (Buddy Deane had the same idea about teen-agers. They were both right.) But our concept of kids has changed. In Miss Nancy's time, we still saw them as innocents; now we see them as commodities, as targets for products who have to stay riveted through the next round of commercials.

Also, children today are too often perceived as slightly bothersome live-in guests around whose schedules we have to construct our own busy lives. What young adult has time for children today? The psychologically hip are too busy cultivating their own inner child. Miss Nancy's kids were taught manners; today, the parents of preschoolers are wondering if it's too early to begin talking about contraceptives.

As Marie Winn wrote in "Children Without Childhood," "Where parents once felt obliged to shelter their children from life's vicissitudes, today great numbers of them have come to operate according to a new belief: that children must be exposed early to adult experience in order to survive in an increasingly uncontrollable world.

"The Age of Protection has ended. An Age of Preparation has set in. And children have suffered a loss. As they are integrated at a young age into the adult world, in every way their lives have become more difficult, more confusing - in short, more like adult lives."

Childhood's tougher than it was in Miss Nancy's time. Everybody still talks a good game about kids, but we do it out of both sides of our mouth. Thus we had the Reagan administration pocketing the lunch money of children and calling ketchup a vegetable; thus we have the Clinton administration ready to cut welfare benefits to millions of children whose pain they apparently do not feel.

Miss Nancy wouldn't have tolerated such a thing. Her generation wouldn't have. She was a role model for her time, and what a gentler time it was for the children of television.

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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