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“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.” – Fred Rogers
When my newly minted eighteen-year-old son suggested we go see the Mister Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” I was startled. While I had watched the trailer and checked for a release date, I assumed that its screening in art houses in the city would have prevented him from being aware of its existence. I was even more surprised when he observed the film had been certified “fresh” by an exceedingly high percentage at Rotten Tomatoes (like 99%). It was playing in our local movie center (albeit in the smallest theatre, he explained) and we could catch an early screening after work.
I hesitated. Mr. Rogers was most likely my very first experience with television. He was imbedded in my earliest memories along with Happy Days and The Waltons. He was that kind and innocuous stranger that entered our living room via the tiny black and white tv screen. I can imagine my mom sitting me down on a shaggy green carpet to wait for the land of make believe trolley while she tended to my toddler brother barely eighteen months my junior. Mr. Rogers wasn’t “the stranger” to fear. On the contrary, we were encouraged to answer his questions and embrace all he offered. He was our neighbor.
“It’s not so much what we have in this life that matters. It’s what we do with what we have.” – Fred Rogers
I had turned 50 nearly six weeks before and all of the inevitable milestones of one’s measure had been marching unstoppable since the ball dropped on the new year. My birthday fell squarely in the midst of an avalanche of events that hail the beginning of overwhelming change. In a three week span my eldest son turned 18, I turned 50 and he graduated high school. There were award ceremonies and farewell banquets and graduation parties to attend. We had final college commitments to finalize and our own party to manage. My youngest son was leaving elementary school for the middle school and he too had special events and celebrations on the calendar. I barely had time to contemplate the great gift this new number measured. I was alive and well.
I met my 50thbirthday in tears of joy and sadness for what had come before and what was yet to be. The world my son was entering as an adult seemed just as tumultuous as the one I was born to. There were divisions in culture and politics, nationalities and race. The excitement of possibilities was tainted with a fear of great upheaval in the world.
Mr. Rogers Neighborhood arrived at a similar time in history. His first show aired on PBS on February 18, 1968, less than four months before my mother gave birth to her first born. While I grew peacefully protected inside her, arguably one of the most tumultuous times in history unfolded. She saw the wake-up call that was the Vietnam Tet Offensive (just two weeks before Roger’s premiere), and weeks later the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis.
As she labored to deliver me into violent, uncertain times, Robert Kennedy was shot and died. “How’s the patient?” she remembers a doctor inquiring of a nurse in the ward. “Deceased,” she replied. While my mother basked in the joy of her new daughter, the world was seemingly falling apart. Later that year Nixon was nominated by his party (and wins the election), Hair premieres on Broadway, and The Beatles release Hey Jude. African Americans and women see many firsts in education, politics and sport while continuing to march and protest for greater rights. As the sixties take their last, exhausted breadth, Fred Rogers finds his calling to bring kindness to this unkind world.
“There is no person in the world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” – Fred Rogers
I must admit I was afraid of the ugly cry. The movie trailer featuring a young and vibrant Rogers bringing life to his staring puppets, responding to the ding of the trolley, feeding the fish: it was just all too much. There was a primal connection to this soft-spoken human that, for many of us, hadn’t been tapped in some time. How would I feel revisiting that world for 90 minutes, son beside me, in the dark? It felt so intimate and personal. Perhaps I wanted to take this journey alone. But his insistence to accompany him won the day, and I agreed to rush home to make the screening for which he had already ordered two tickets.
Our memories of humans long lost are often tainted with our own biases. The nuanced reflections of my Italian Nanny (grandmother) are certainly different from those my father and mother hold. To me, she was the keeper of magic and mystery and food and adventure. Her home was filled with the smells and sounds I could never access at my address. My memories are a child’s memory shaded in rich, saturated colors and delicious textures. I can still hear her voice, see her hands, smell her hair. I had her barely 19 years, but her influence in my life is richer as I reach the age she was when I was born. I sometimes wonder whether my memories are accurate or whether time has tinged those recollections in rose-colored hues.
Not so with Mr. Rogers it seemed. As the extensive footage of his program flickered on a screen many times larger than his doorway into my home, the feelings of peace and acceptance came flooding back. There was the paneling and picture picture screen at the door! There was the closet with the zip-up cardigan anxiously waiting for its owner to release it from its box! There were the tennis shoes and laces, the curtains and the fish! There was the man singing sweetly and earnestly about all the good feelings of being alive. Of the happiness and joy and confusion of being small and just wanting to understand. I hadn’t imagined it. It was all real. But was he?
“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, “It’s not my child, it’s not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need to respond. I consider those people my heroes.” — Fred Rogers
Alas, we were children on the precipice of a new medium ready to believe the “make believe” that a kindhearted, 143-pound man in a zip-up sweater really cared how we felt and what we feared. And that it mattered. As we grew up through the groovy seventies and techno eighties, the hard-edged, stark realities of life became more real. Roger’s neighborhood seemed unrealistic and soft. His manner of speaking and relating to the world looked naïve and foolish. He was make believe. Surely his program was contrived to rope in the youngest consumers so that a television network in its infancy could lead the way in audience numbers and influence.
“There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” — Fred Rogers
Today’s modern television programming is the most contrived and inauthentic ever. While the Kardashians obsess over their waist size and whether they hit a billion-dollar net worth, Fred Rogers obsessed over the wellbeing of children. His program’s mission was to help the vulnerable navigate the challenges of growing up in a way that honored their delicate perspective. His calming, halting rhythm of speech, peppered with long silences and patient breaks, showed a level of respect that even our parents were often too stressed and tried to muster.
His was an aspirational existence we all wished could be ours. Never rushed, never loud, visiting his neighborhood was entering an alternate reality where you met interesting people, learned new things, talked about what made you happy or sad, and returned refreshed and just a bit more confident because he liked you just the way you were.
“I don’t think anyone can grow unless he’s loved exactly as he is now, appreciated for what he is rather than what he will be.” – Fred Rogers
Fred Rogers not only birthed a ground-breaking program for the betterment of children, he lived authentically. The remembrances of his closest family, friends and coworkers validated that the man who we opened our hearts to was the same man whose heart was loved and cherished by all who met him. His joy was intricately woven in the wellbeing of others. His mission was kindness. His life’s work was Christ-like. When he was pained or hopeless or beaten, it was driven by the self-doubt that his mission didn’t matter. That the meanness and harshness of the world had left children and the child-like behind. When he was asked by PBS to film promos for children in response to 9/11 (though long retired), the angst and hopelessness of the world’s condition was etched on his face. His eyes were red and tired. His self-doubt evident. Had he touched anyone in his decades of work to encourage kindness in the world?
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” – Fred Rogers
As the movie moved toward its inspiring end and we followed Rogers journey toward eternity, I glanced secretly to my right to catch a glimpse of my quiet, still boy. Scrunched down in the seat, feet up and arms folded tightly, his face glowed red and wet in the light of the screen as he quietly sniffled and blinked. My ugly cry appeared nearly half-way through the documentary and continued, unabated and free in the safety of the half-full theatre as I marveled at the excellence of this incredible man and mourned the loss of his kind. But the joy of the experience was in the realization that my own child, raised in a household inspired by the likes of Rogers, recognized the greatness in a life well lived in service of others. I wondered though, were they tears of hope for a world that Rogers gave his life trying to realize, or for the possibility that the neighborhood like Roger’s is truly make believe?