Sara and Matt watched Mister Rogers Neighborhood almost every day when they were little. The show came on at 4:30pm, and was a perfect way to settle them down and lead into a calm dinner — no matter how much excitement they’d had that day. I’d overhear from the kitchen, which was adjacent to the room we’d made into a play area and TV room. I loved Fred Rogers’ calm voice, his endearing characters both live and in puppet form, his ability to talk to young children — the show was geared toward 3-5 year olds — about the most difficult subjects in a way that respected their inherent dignity and intelligence.
In the documentary film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, Rogers recounts an early conversation with a small group of children that set the stage for what the show would become. One little boy looked at Rogers and solemnly announced that the ear of his beloved teddy bear had come off in the wash.
I’m paraphrasing, but Rogers responded in a way that was intuitively brilliant and opening of a deep conversation about children’s real fears. “That happens sometimes with our favorite toys, doesn’t it? But OUR ears don’t come off. Our noses don’t come off, or our arms, or our legs.”
Rogers was spot on. The children jumped into the conversation, and a wonderful interaction ensued.
Rogers had a particular philosophy of how TV should be used to teach young children: not with noise and slam-bang and distraction much less with violence, but with a slow-paced visit to a neighborhood where Mister Rogers was familiar, the characters were familiar, where people are valued for being just who they are, and where adults keep children safe. Mister Rogers neighborhood had one other key feature: honesty prevailed, no matter what. The TV show began in 1968, a deeply troubling year on our national stage. Mister Rogers did a show about Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, built around a balloon popping in Lady Aberlin’s hands. Balloons had popped in that auditorium in California, where chaos ensued after the sound of gunfire.
Not for nothing, but Mister Rogers’ neighborhood exposed children to a new vocabulary. Sara had a particular attachment to Ornythorhinchus Anatinus — a platypus puppet character — whose correct name she could pronounce at three years old.
I wasn’t aware of the controversies about Fred Rogers. When he died, protestors massed across from his funeral because he’d affirmed Officer Clemmons, who was gay — not on the show in that era, but in life. Conservatives accused Rogers of being a narcissist, of telling children they were special when they really were not. Actually, Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and his show was his ministry. His message was the fundamental Christian message of the dignity of the human person, without qualification or reservation.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a remarkable documentary about a remarkable man. Most of us in the audience were near tears at the end, at the basic human decency of the man, about his wisdom and grace and ability to connect with small children and with adults on a most profound level. The contrast to our current culture was unmistakable, and I think the tears were not only about nostalgia, but about what we’ve lost.