Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? July 9, 2018

Our son Eric was four years old. My husband George, after teaching all day at Tufts University, would walk over to Tufts Day Care Center, pick Eric up, and walk home with him, Eric riding in the carrier on George’s back. As soon as they’d get in the house, they’d both plop down in front of the TV and turn on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

It was exactly what they both needed—George as much as Eric—at the end of their intensely interactive day. A balm for their spirits, Mr. Rogers would tell them how special they each were, and that they didn’t need to do anything to be special; they were wonderful just as they were. Both George and Eric could feel the day’s tension drain from their minds and bodies as they watched and listened. When the show was over, they were refreshed.

This was 1971-2. Since Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began its national broadcast in 1968, Eric and George were experiencing some of the earliest of what became 912 episodes over thirty-three years.

Now, more than forty years after that daily healing balm, George still feels relaxed just thinking about Mr. Rogers. So naturally we went to see the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? as soon as it came to our local theater.

There are a few things in the film that I was already familiar with: Rogers’s quietly reassuring demeanor, his trademark cardigan and sneakers (images of hominess in the neighborhood), his creative puppetry.

But I hadn’t known that, after being ordained as a Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers created Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to counter what he saw as the noisy, destructive violence of children’s TV programming. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was his ministry to children, which he saw as his life’s work. The film notes that children were not well understood at the time, and Fred Rogers made them his life’s study. He insisted that kids have very deep feelings, as much as adults do, including fears that need to be addressed lovingly.

So the show took on themes that had never before been explored publically with children: divorce, death, war, and more. When there was a scary item on the TV news (as at Robert Kennedy’s assassination or during the Vietnam War), Rogers would open it up in a way that children could understand and yet not be frightened by. Discussing all these issues, Rogers would speak with quiet earnestness, and always with intentional slowness.

Relationships with children were what Rogers aimed for. He always looked right into the camera, his eyes focused on the child he knew would be watching at home.

Sometimes he gave his message not by words but just by actions. In the early years of the show, public swimming pools around the country were generally segregated by race. So in one episode, Mr. Rogers is visited by Officer Clemmons, the neighborhood’s friendly policeman, played by African American actor François Clemmons. To have a respected neighborhood character be black spoke volumes. (Clemmons says in film: “My just being on the program was a statement for Fred.”)

But Rogers went much further in this particular episode. When Officer Clemmons walks into the neighborhood, Mister Rogers is sitting in front of a plastic wading pool and says something like, “Wow, is it hot today! I think I’ll cool off my feet in this pool.” Rogers takes off his shoes and socks, puts his bare feet into the pool and invites Officer Clemmons to do the same. “Doesn’t this feel good?” asks Rogers as the camera zooms in on the four bare feet, two white and two black. The very image of a peacefully integrated swimming pool, without a word about it said!

Scenes like this in the movie told me something I hadn’t known: how Fred Rogers was at the forefront of social issues. “He was radical,” a cast member interviewed in the film says approvingly. Always in his deliberately slow-paced, quiet way, he demonstrated a world, a “neighborhood,” as it should be.

Peace, equality, mutual respect, and understanding. Fun, too: there was nothing somber about Rogers. The puppets into which he projected his voice were often amusingly silly. And I can’t recall Rogers ever losing at least the trace of a warm smile, even when talking about the toughest things.

Social issues did matter to Rogers, but always what mattered most was encouraging children to honor their feelings, whatever those feelings might be. He’d keep returning to this in a multitude of contexts, for instance creating episodes where someone felt angry and then calmly working through how to deal with one’s anger peacefully.

“The greatest thing we can do is to help somebody know they’re loved,” Rogers says in an interview in the movie. To dramatize this conviction, he ended every show by looking right into the camera and saying with a smile “You always make each day such a special day—by just your being you.”

All this is making Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood sound sentimental, but—remarkably—it wasn’t. When someone is speaking honestly to your deepest needs, that is not sentimentality. Sentimentality is sugaring over tough realities rather than genuinely exploring them.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was simply enacting (though it’s not so simple) what Rogers knew was the core Christian message: God is love and we are made in God’s image. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,” and Fred Rogers did exactly that, with television as his chosen medium. Though Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was never, to my knowledge, identified as a Christian ministry, that’s what it was. And like the best of Christian ministries, it spoke to everyone.

Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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