I was watching the rebroadcast of a PBS documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?.
I remember Mr. Rogers, though it came a bit before my time. It hit my brother at just about the right season in his development so I do remember catching glimpses of it, “hey neighbor!!”, and probably making fun of it. Trips to the Magic Kingdom had a different connotation to me at that time. I remember Eddie Murphy’s famous take off of Mr. Rogers going to the “hood” which was hilarious, “thank you, boys and girls”. I recall being puzzled by the “land of make believe” and the rather simple characters that did not catch my attention. When I saw Fred Rogers slip into his comfortable sweater and shoes, it was a sign for me to head to my own room and listen to Santana, the Stones, or the Beatles. Sgt. Pepper was my King Friday.
Like most PBS specials, this was so well produced, dredging up footage from the early days of rather primitive production, but moving into deeper waters as to the motivation behind the man. Fred had intended to go to seminary but got short-stopped into the idea of producing a television show that was pitched toward young children.
The documentary looks at his growing up in a privileged background, but being susceptible to the taunts of his peers, as they referred to him as Fat Freddie. The piece does not deal with how he transformed into a more confident Fred, but does make a curious point that he slimmed down to a weight of 143, which he meticulously guarded throughout his life by swimming daily at the Athletic Club. Delving into numerological prompts. it is disclosed that the number represented the number of letters in the three most important words to Mr. Rogers: I Love You. Seemingly, his earlier taunting caused him to be particularly sensitive to issues of esteem in young children. Mr. Rogers was known specifically for offering the reassurance that “you’re special” to children that tuned into his daily show.
Examining the evolution of the show’s format as the years went by is fascinating. The practicality of funding is addressed as Fred Rogers spoke to Congress about his mission of providing self esteem to children who are listening. His balanced, yet passionate rationale for his show proved convincing, leading a previously skeptical Congressman to exclaim that Mr. Rogers’s testimony won the show five million dollars of funding. Oh, for the days when Congressional funding was more based in caring for our children and their development instead of showboating and blocking partisan maneuvering.
Having played in the waters of Piaget and the education of children, I was fascinated by the way Rogers took the perspective of the child and pitched his material to meet their specific cognitive capability and needs. His empathy for the unique position and vulnerability of a child is amazing as many educators forget that perspective as they deliver information. You sensed, as he interacted with all different types of children, that he really cared. It’s hard to fake that, as politicians know.
Eventually, he began to take on topics that less courageous folks would avoid. He shared a wading pool with the policeman who was black, to experientially address the issue of integration, an issue that was real to me as a child swimming at the Oakland City pool in Atlanta. I remember parents taking their children out of the pool in a hot hurry when blacks “invaded” the community pool. My grandfather, a cop, kept me in, without so much as a word. That is, until I asked him, which he explained in simple terms of us all being God’s children. Made sense then. Makes sense now.
Mr. Rogers plucked a dead fish from the aquarium, examining it and observing that it was not moving, becoming an opportunity to discuss death. When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, he showed pictures of people crying, not hiding reality from these young children. He took the time and space to talk about sadness, of how it feels when bad things happen. When 9/11 occurred, PBS smartly trotted out Mr. Rogers to talk about how you deal with such terrible things.
I was struck by one piece of advice that he offered at times when one was scared. He encouraged children to look to the one’s who are providing help. Go there. Those people will see you through this bad time. It’s advice I have thought a lot about lately.
The documentary goes on to the conclusion of Mr. Rogers production and his struggle with aging and death. His wife tells touchingly of his asking her if he will be a sheep. This is an explicit reference to the scene in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, of The Final Judgment, where God separates the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous. “Will I be a sheep?” he queries, just as a little child might. And his wife responds that if she knew anyone who was a sheep, it would be him. It is a powerful, pure moment as the question of worth and esteem emerges for a final time for Freddie, and hopefully got answered.
The show is a tour de force, displaying the care and the careful way Fred Rogers sought to engage the children in our country. It concludes as the various players in the program are asked to bring to mind the one person who made them feel that they were of worth, or as I would frame it, one person who blessed you with the knowledge that you were loved.
The camera goes to most of the faces that had been talking throughout the documentary. It frames and focuses, pauses, and holds for silence. You can visually see the cogs and wheels turning in their cerebrum, searching for images of people who have conveyed that holy message of worth, of value, and esteem. You can imagine that, for many of them, it was Fred who came to mind. I wondered as the camera focused on Fred’s two sons, and who came to mind for them. For each person who was asked, a small knowing smile, and look of peace emerged as they remembered a sacred moment in time when that blessing was conferred.
Isn’t that the way it is? We are graced by encounters with people who bless us with conferring an affirmation of our down, deep goodness that can not be taken away. If we are fortunate, it may be our parents, but that’s messy territory that gets a bit confusing. Sometimes, it may be a teacher who saw something special in us and tried to nurture it. It might be someone from our particular neighborhood or community that decides to invest the time in getting to know us, and then gives us that sense of worth, of value. However it comes, it is blessing. It is sacred. It is gift.
Who was that person for you? Stop. Right now. Pause. Catch in your mind’s eye the person who gave you that gift, that existential blessing. savor that moment, that exquisite feeling. Who comes to mind that makes you smile?