Although his show wasn’t called Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the phrase instantly conjures up thoughts of Fred Rogers. His educational childrens’ show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, is something most people watched when they were children and even if, like me, you never saw it, you knew of him and his show.
It ran 31 years, and was more than just 30 minutes to entertain children. Fred Rogers really loved people, and he especially wanted to make a difference in the lives of very young children. Throughout its run, children had to face things such as racism, divorce, and even assassination.
Amazingly, Mr. Rogers faced these things head on. He didn’t present a sunny show to take childrens’ minds off of real life — instead, he showed them how to deal with these things.
At a time when black people weren’t allowed in swimming pools with white people, he set up a wading pool and bathed his feet in it on a hot day. When the neighborhood officer, François Clemmons (who happened to be African American) showed up, Mr. Rogers asked him to share the pool with him. He even offered to share his towel.
Mr. Rogers was a mild-mannered, gentle soul, and as such, faced criticism. But he even taught children how to deal with that, telling them, “I think that those who would try to make you feel less than who you are — I think that’s the greatest evil.” And most of all, he taught them that they mattered, that they were lovable, and were able to love in return.
A few years ago, I chatted with one of my favorite authors, Frances A. Miller, who wrote The Truth Trap and many other books for teens. She explained that the message of the book was that everyone needs someone — even just one person — to tell them that they’re okay. Without that, they’re lost. I was reminded of this while watching this documentary. Mr. Rogers knew this and that’s exactly what he told young people.
He even told them that they don’t have to do anything extraordinary to be loved. He received criticism for that, as well. He was accused of telling kids that they don’t have to do a thing in order to be special. But that’s not what he was saying. Mr. Rogers was saying that when someone feels loved, the world seems like a more wonderful place. It makes it easier to love others when you feel secure about who you are. It’s hard to be unhappy when people really care about you and what you have to say and it gives you the strength to find your way in the world.
He says in the movie, “Love is at the root of everything. Love or the lack of it.” He also said, “I don’t think that anyone can grow unless he’s accepted exactly as he is.”
One incredible segment in which public broadcasters sit in on a session with Congress, because their funding is about to be cut, has to be seen to be believed. Senator Pastore, who is leading the session, is visibly grumpy and even says he’s sick of hearing people read their written testimonies. He looks like he’s about to cut funding, when it’s Mr. Rogers’ turn.
He tells Pastore that he won’t read what he’s prepared, because he knows the senator will read it later, as he promised. Instead, Mr. Rogers tells him how he wants to make sure each child feels unique and appreciated just as they are. That they know their feelings are mentionable and manageable.
He goes on to tell the senator the story of a child who told him she was angry. He recites a song that tells children how to deal with “the mad.” Pastore is visibly moved and tells Mr. Rogers, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
Through the vintage footage, when Mr. Rogers talks to someone, especially a child, he’s listening fully to what they say. And he reacts in an honest way. At one point he says, “Everyone has inherent value” and “You don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you.” This film paints him as a genuine, caring person, and it’s really difficult to imagine someone so sincere and kind.
One of the people interviewed, who knew Mr. Rogers personally, says, “I think there are a lot of people out there like Fred Rogers. A lot more than we really want to believe.” I hope that’s true.
As I said earlier, I never saw Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, but now that I’ve seen this movie, I wish I had been able to when I was a kid. At any age however, his message and the way he was able to connect to people is incredibly inspiring. ~Alexandra Heilbron