The other day, we went to pay homage to an old friend of mine. I hadn’t seen him in many years, and he died some time ago, but he left an impression on me. It’s only now that I’m really starting to comprehend and appreciate the unique soul known as Fred Rogers.
When I was a very young child, I visited him every weekday. I would wait for him to come through the door, give a cheery greeting, and come down the steps to the front closet. He’d take off his jacket and pull out and put on a cardigan. Then he’d sit down and change out of his outdoor shoes for a pair of sneakers, singing all the while, asking if I would be his neighbour, or announcing that it was a such a good feeling to know we were friends.
He’d take me off on fascinating adventures in interesting places like factories. He’d introduce me to the people who lived in the neighbourhood when they’d stop by. Or he’d send me off to pay a visit to the Land of Make-Believe (which I thought was the Land of Maple Leaf) to visit Daniel Tiger and Lady Aberlin and their friends. All the while, he made sure that I felt included, and that no matter how I felt that day, he was happy to see me and spend time with me. I was wild about him.
I announced to my parents that I wanted to marry him. They were very kind to me and explained to my four-year-old self that he was already married. They managed to do it in a way that didn’t break my heart. I wish I had known then that I could have written to him (with help) to tell him how I felt because even though he would have let me down in his gentle way, I’d have treasured his response forever. But at that age, I didn’t know such things were possible. This must do instead.
As I got older, I moved on to faster-paced shows, as one does. I plunged headlong into all the colour and noise the 1980s had to offer, leaving the neighbourhood behind. And yet, if I was home sick from school, even as a teenager, I’d pop in for a visit and there he was, now in full colour, sometimes a little older, sometimes just the same. Eventually, these visits stopped, but I always thought of him with fondness. He died when I was 25, and I joined the world in mourning him.
Why did I love Fred Rogers so? I think in a way, he reminded me of my grandfather, who died the year I was born before I was even on my way. Mr Rogers had a similar taste in clothing so far as I could tell, so there was a visual connection. Maybe it was because I only ever saw Mr Rogers on the screen and Grandpa in pictures. I didn’t want to marry Grandpa, of course, but four-year-olds don’t tend to understand the intricacies of romance or the different kinds of love that exist.
I don’t think that was really the reason, though. I think it’s what many have said about Mr Rogers. He exemplified decency and acceptance and love in a way no other public person has. For a while, he was the centre of my universe, and he made me feel like I was the centre of his. And it wasn’t for any reason other than that he genuinely believed in the value of each and every one of us. What a gift to give to a child. What a gift to the world.
I didn’t appreciate that gift at the time. To be frank, I’d forgotten it. It’s only recently that I’ve realized how fundamentally important Mr Rogers’ gift was. And so, when we went to see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” this past weekend, I was expecting it to be an emotional experience, much like the recent “It’s You I Like.” But I never anticipated how much it would shake me to the core.
While we were watching the film, I realized how little I knew about the history of the show or about the man himself. I didn’t know that he often gave children and parents tools to cope with national tragedies like the Vietnam War and Robert Kennedy’s assassination (both before I was born) and later the Challenger explosion and 9/11 (both of which happened after I stopped watching regularly).
It broke my heart to see how little society has changed in 50 years. The clips of King Friday XIII insisting that a wall be built to “keep out change” could be seen as a commentary on Trump’s border wall if it were shown today. The two different clips the film showed of Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemons cooling their feet in the same pool should not feel radical today, but with so many news stories of white people calling the police on innocent black people doing everyday things, including swimming, it’s hard to see it any other way.
It was appalling to see Fox News pundits and others accuse Mr Rogers (a fellow Republican!) of destroying generations of children by telling each one of his viewers that they were special. In their eyes, there was something evil in believing and teaching that us that each one of us is born with inherent value, that saying “you don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you” was dangerous. Nonsense? Not when you realize that these are the sorts of people who actively deny or strive to lessen the humanity of certain groups simply because they aren’t like them. That your worth is conditional on your productivity and output within the constraints they have decided for you.
You may think that based on this summary alone, the documentary was an exercise in doom and gloom. On the contrary, it showed that despite his personal struggles or perhaps because of them, Fred Rogers was full of compassion for the world. He truly believed in loving one’s neighbour as one’s self and embodied it in his work. It was his life’s ministry.
There was plenty of nostalgia to be had, which was one of the main motivations for going to see it. There was the fishtank! The big traffic light! Picture Picture! The trolley! In some ways, it was like homecoming week. It was wonderful to see the residents of the Neighborhood and the Land of Make Believe again. Many of them I remembered. There were some I had forgotten. But it was so good to see them all again.
And it was wonderful to see the clips of Mr Rogers and his puppet friends interacting with people outside of the Neighborhood. To see the eyes light up, no matter how old or young the audience was. I looked at those faces and thought, “Yes, I was one of you”, feeling a kinship with people I’ll never meet, bonding over our admiration for our hero. It was fascinating, too, to see how Mr Rogers would disappear behind Daniel Tiger or X the Owl if they were brought out to join the conversation, Much like the Muppets, they were as real to the people they were talking to as Mr Rogers himself. And yes, according to the people who knew him best, he was the real deal too.
In sum, the film reminded me of why I loved him as a child.
And yet, after we came out of the showing, I broke down in tears. I was thinking back to my childhood and adolescence. I felt as though I had abandoned him and his message as I got when I grew up, much as children leave fairyland behind. But it was just at that time when I needed someone like him the most. I was badly bullied when I was in middle school and early high school, experiences that fundamentally shaped my life for years afterwards. My self-worth is still scarred to this day. Looking back on that time, I would have given anything to have had a friend like Mr Rogers tell anguished me that:
“You make each day a special day. You know how, by just your being you. There’s only one person in this whole world like you. And people can like you exactly as you are.”
I feel as though if I were to meet him now and tell him this story, he would take my hand and help me work through this ancient pain. I think I would seek some kind of absolution and I think he would tell me that there’s nothing to be forgiven for.
I think, too, that he’d gently tell me to look at what I believe and how I try to live my life. Is it really that different from what he taught me? Looking back at some of his words, I realize that these reflect my own personal philosophy to one degree or another:
Feelings are mentionable and manageable
Help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.
In appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something truly sacred.
There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.
Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.
I miss Mr Rogers so, in ways I never knew until now. There was no one else quite like him. But maybe, if we strive to emulate him, to try to make the world into the kind of world he dreamed of for our children, then there’s hope for us after all. All we can do is our very best to be a good neighbour and friend.
Copyright 2018 Jessica Allyson