This Father’s Day weekend I had the opportunity to see the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? by Morgan Neville on the philosophy, impact, and legacy of Fred Rogers. Full of nostalgia and astounding wonderment, for me it was a chance to gain a glimpse of the iconic television show and person I grew up with, and to have confirmed, thankfully, that the television personality Mister Rogers was really no different than the actor who played him. It was the perfect Father’s Day gift, for who didn’t view Mister Rogers as a kind of surrogate father anyway?
Growing up as a child in the late 1970s and early 1980s when mass entertainment was a bit more restricted due to the number of outlets, my childhood was influenced by just a few entertainment/educational sources like Sesame Street, Captain Kangaroo, The Electric Company, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and The Wonderful World of Disney. Each show left its impression on me and I still think back on them all fondly, but Mister Rogers always found a space in my heart, more special than the others.
What I gained from the documentary that I hadn’t perhaps internalized fully before was just how groundbreaking and risk-taking it often was. I don’t think this was done subversively; the gentle and slow paced nature of the show approached topics boldly but also contemplatively. Mister Rogers was not there to force feed you opinions but have you acknowledge issues, consider them, and reflect on how they make you feel.
In the first week of the program, In The Neighborhood of Make-Believe, King Friday builds a wall around his castle to keep people out and help preserve the status quo. He even appoints a border guard. Eventually, Daniel Striped Tiger and X the Owl along with Lady Aberlin floats balloons into the castle with peaceful messages of love and inclusion and King Friday declares an end to “The War Against Change.” In another episode, Mister Rogers invites the neighborhood police officer, an African American character named Officer Clemmons, to take off his shoes and put his feet in a kiddy pool on a hot day. This was during a time in the United States where interracial swimming was not allowed in many places. No question, it was bold stuff.
The show wasn’t just social statements though; it addressed the very real feelings that children have and how they should respond to those feelings. By the time the early 1980s rolled around, children’s programming was becoming far more commercialized and geared towards consumerism. Cartoons like G.I. Joe, Transformers, and He-Man did nothing to speak to children’s feelings, who they are as a person, and what their place in the world might be, but the toys were cool. I’m not knocking this per se; I had my share of Transformer toys and had great fun playing with them, but what Mister Rogers was doing was entirely counter to these children’s television products.
In a heartbreaking scene in The Neighborhood of Make-Believe just after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, Daniel Striped Tiger vulnerably askes Lady Aberlin, “What is assassination?” Yes, a show for five-year-olds was addressing assassination. Mister Rogers also talked openly about death, divorce, love, anger, frustration, and self-esteem. “Children have very deep feelings just the way everybody does.” Mister Rogers wanted to help children deal with them.
“Young children don’t know that sadness isn’t forever. It’s frightening for them to feel that their sadness may overwhelm them and never go away. That ‘the very same people who are sad sometimes are the very same people who are glad sometimes’ is something all parents need to help their children come to understand.”
Fred Rogers was a man who had a singular and unique ethic of love. An ordained Presbyterian Minister, he thought the new medium of children’s television could be used as a tool to make the world a better place. Today Mister Rogers is held in near saint-like status. There are books of his quotes (one sits in my office in hopes that my high school students might pick it up and have a quick read), numerous websites dedicated to his philosophy and vision of love and acceptance, and a simple Google search of “Mister Rogers Quotes” will turn up more inspiration and kindness than you can handle. His “look for the helpers” quote always makes the rounds on social media when some disaster has occurred. People seek his wisdom when they are confused, hurt, angry, sad, and lonely.
Near the end of the documentary, it’s asked, “How would Mister Rogers react to our current situation?” It was a hard question for those interviewed, mostly his family and close friends, to answer. Much later in his life, Fred Rogers was profoundly shaken by 9/11. Asked to make a few one-minute PSAs for PBS to help make sense of the tragedy, it was clear how impacted he was by just his physical demeanor seen in outtakes. He was having difficulty conjuring up the calming words that he is so well known for, but he did find the words and that gentle, soothing voice came to life. I believe in those PSAs he was speaking to children, but I also think we was speaking to his neighbors from 15, 20, 25 years ago, now adults.
What would Fred do?
Perhaps it’s not such a flippant refrain. It certainly echoes the once popularized phrase “What would Jesus do?” The similarities between the well-worn quote from Jesus Christ “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not, after all, too unlike what Mister Rogers was advocating. In fact, it’s exactly what Mister Rogers was advocating. In the documentary, one of his sons jokes, “It was a little tough having the Second Christ as my dad.”
Perhaps then, in these divisive times, the philosophy of Mister Rogers is not only needed but called for. Perhaps this documentary is, in fact, a call to action. Those of us who experienced Mister Rogers are now grown up; we’ve left the neighborhood, which means we are the ones now responsible for asking how we should treat our neighbor. Do we offer the simple invitation that Mister Rogers extends at the beginning of every show, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” What exactly does that mean, and what should it look like?