One of my earliest childhood memories was watching the camera pan over the landscape as it zoomed in to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I enjoyed meeting the neighbors who would show up at his door; Mr. McFeely with his “Speedy Delivery” was my favorite. I eagerly anticipated seeing which buildings Mr. Rogers would place on the table as he created the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I must admit that I still suffer from the longing to see all the buildings placed on the table at one time; unfortunately, that childhood dream was never fulfilled.
Mr. Rogers taught me about what it meant to be a neighbor. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, the 2018 documentary film about his life, shows that I’m not the only one who his work impacted. The movie’s expected audience members are not today’s children, but rather the children who grew up learning from him – the adults of today. I considered writing a review of the movie, but since I’m still crying 2 hours later from its beauty and the impact he had on my life, I’ve decided to list a few moments that stood out to me:
- Rogers believed that love (or the lack of it) is at the root of everything. The number 143 reflects the number of letters in each word of the phrase “I love you.” He wanted each of us to know that we are loved and are capable of loving. He felt that the greatest evil is people who try to make you feel less than you are.
- He valued the fact that children have deep feelings, and he wasn’t afraid to talk about those feelings. We learned that it was normal to feel sad, or angry, or confused. He also taught us how to deal with those feelings.
- We learned that a neighborhood was a place with people who would take care of us.
- Throughout the run of the show Mr. Rogers decided to address issues and current events that children were hearing about. He talked about war during the show’s first week. Daniel Striped-Tiger asked about assassination after Bobby Kennedy’s death. When children were pretending to fly out of windows like Superman, he addressed how to safely play and the difference between fantasy and reality. He talked to us about bullying, death, divorce, and sibling rivalry, and he lived out the value of accepting all people.
- Although he voiced most of the puppets, it was stated that Daniel Striped-Tiger was actually the most like Mr. Rogers in opinions and feelings.
- He intentionally included a significant amount of slow space in his program. It was not wasted space; when children (and adults) are not hurrying to follow a conversation, they have the opportunity to think and to share what they’re thinking.
I’ll never forget the day in 2003 when I heard the news that Mr. Rogers had died; I still get teary thinking about it. I was the director of an early learning program, and a parent arrived that day with the terrible news. I broke down and sobbed; my hero was gone. Who would teach children all over the world about what it meant to be a good neighbor? Who would talk with the children about real world issues? Who would be the reassuring voice when life and the world just didn’t make sense? A hole was left, and I had no idea how it could ever be filled. But as the current co-director of the Fred Rogers center stated in the film, “Don’t ask yourself what Mr. Rogers would do now. Ask yourself what you would do.” It’s time for us to live out those lessons that we learned from the gentle and honest man who cared so much about all children and to teach those same lessons to the children in our lives.