What would will Mr. Rogers we do?
When I was very young, at the same time each weekday, I would don a sweater and tennis shoes and watch my favorite television program.
Maybe I didn’t switch outfits every time I watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” as he did at the start and end of every episode, but I’m certain I did so many times. I probably couldn’t have explained exactly why I loved him, and the trolley that took us to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, and the puppets there, and Lady Aberlin, the woman who was their friend and confidant.
Perhaps I can now.
A week before seeing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, the wonderful new documentary about Mr. Rogers, I read David Brooks’ fine opinion piece about it. That led me to an unforgettable 1998 “Esquire” article by Tom Junod, who appears in the documentary.
This is written the day after I saw the movie, which I recommend highly, along with a few tissues in case the theater gets dusty from time to time. I believe Mr. Rogers would tell folks there was no need to quickly wipe their eyes before the house lights come on – because it’s okay to show your feelings.
Fred Rogers (it seems odd to use his first name, like a young child addressing an adult that way) wasn’t just the host of the Emmy-winning children’s television program for more than three decades. He was an ordained minister, a trained musician, husband and father, and a student of child development who continually consulted with others in the field about how to make his program better. He decided to get into television after realizing most programs for children were put together with little thought about the lessons they imparted.
Mr. Rogers believed in speaking simply but deeply to children, and listening to them, and of the value of a few moments of silence. His programs were prepared with the utmost care, from the songs he wrote to the words he and his characters spoke. The way he talked on the show, slowly and softly, was the same way he spoke to adults, whether they were parents or interviewers or members of Congress. All evidence, then and now, indicates that those who thought Mr. Rogers too good to be true were wrong; he was every bit the kind, thoughtful man we saw on television.
So many memories came flooding back during and after the film:
My childhood crush on Lady Aberlin (two decades later, I told a first date that she looked like her, which somehow didn’t scare her off); Lady Elaine, the slightly scary puppet often used to illustrate not-so-nice behavior, whom I thought resembled a crusty next-door neighbor who didn’t appreciate me showing up early for Trick or Treat; my great aunt Sarah, who spoke the way Mr. Rogers did, and was also a loving person; and, among others, the episode where Mr. Rogers showed how to make peanut butter.
A common theme in reviews of the documentary is how much we could use Mr. Rogers’ kindness, compassion and bravery these days.
That is certainly true, but of course, we’re not likely to see his like again, not on television, anyway.
However, as a person in the movie suggests, perhaps the question, “What would Mr. Rogers do?” is not as important as, “What will we do?” Can we speak with care and listen well, even when we disagree with each other? Can we remember that we are unique and valuable, and so are others? That it’s okay to be scared, and to make mistakes, and get angry from time to time?
“Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships – love, or the lack of it,” Mr. Rogers said. “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved, and capable of loving.”
Leaving the theater, I thought of what I’d do if Mr. Rogers were alive and I could meet him. He wouldn’t be the first celebrity I’ve met or interviewed, but he would be the most important.
I think I’d shake his hand and tell him how much he means to me and millions more, from adults who grew up watching him to the children fortunate enough to see his show today. Then, because it’s okay to show your feelings, I’d ask Mr. Rogers for a hug.