Fred Rogers and his neighborhood exposed my secret skeptic. Perhaps it is the Virgo in me, or a tendency learned in my family of origin. But I am a doubting Tomasina. Will trust. Must verify.
No one can be that nice, I thought, while watching Liz watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. My preschool daughter kept her appointment each weekday afternoon, back-in-the-day when we had to see shows as they aired. She would settle in for 30-minutes while I caught up on kitchen duties, phone calls, laundry and breath. Rogers spoke to my daughter about love and friendship and feelings and haircuts and fish and crayons.
With an elegant redundancy, he walked through the door to cheerfully change from a navy blazer and man-shoes, into a cardigan and sneakers. He did all of this while singing a happy snappy invitation to his juvenile audience, and the parents who lingered nearby. In Fred’s world, it was always a beautiful day, a beautiful day for a neighbor just like me.
Liz loved the plodding rhythm of the show, the homemade quality of the set and those silly hand puppets. She did not love Sesame Street the way her older sister and I did. “It’s too busy,” she said. Her comment should have provoked self-awareness about the effect of my own busy-ness. It did not.
Unlike Liz’s mother, Fred took his time. No one can be that calm, I thought. How could my rambunctious daughter, who exhausted me with her physical antics, be spellbound by the saccharine sweetness of the man who told her she was unique, lovable and desirable as a member of the community? How could a toy trolley and hand puppets, which looked like they’d been liberated from a 1960’s era toy box, entertain my child?
Rogers was clearly the man behind the curtain. He wrote the songs and was the voice behind most of the puppets in the Land of Make Believe. He modulated his voice high or low, with tone and inflection befitting each character. I often stopped my busywork to enjoy the quirky characters—narcissist King Friday the 13th who flung foolish proclamations into the neighborhood, and the cranky Lady Elaine Fairchilde whose role, it seemed, was equal opportunity shaming. She was the ideal counterpoint to all that sweetness. Naturally, I preferred these flawed characters to the deeply reflective, self-effacing Daniel Strip-ed Tiger. I find it much easier to believe flaws are real. “Get over yourself, Daniel,” I would have mumbled, had this been an expression commonly used by stay-at-home moms in 1993.
Is Mr. Rogers for real? I thought, hearkening back to a 1970’s cliché of disdain. He seemed genuinely interested in simple things—the goldfish, the crayons, and inscrutably, a cut-out hexagon. No one can be that easily entertained, I thought.
It is 2018. My 28-year-old daughter and I emerge from a movie theater, squinting into the sunshine of the summer evening. We stop in the parking lot to discuss the calmness that has descended upon us. We have just seen the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
The theater had been full on a weekday evening. Three generations, shoulder-to-shoulder, shared laughter and tears. I witnessed an adult man wiping tears from his cheek. The woman next to me sniffled at the same moments as I did—at Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and at footage of the Challenger disaster. Mr. Rogers talked to children after such tragic events. Trusted their intelligence. Knew that tragic events affect the youngest of us. This type of honesty was rare in the 1960’s and 70’s, when parents did not discuss unpleasantries with children; trust me, I know this from personal experience. But Mr. Rogers discussed the word “assassination,” with preschoolers.
“I loved it when he fed the fish,” Liz says. She has a dreamy look in her eyes. I vaguely recall the fish-feeding routine. Neither of us recalls the episode in which Rogers begins his discussion of death by finding a fish limp on the aquarium floor. In a video, he retrieves the body, places it into salted water and waits to see if it will resurrect, before wrapping it gently in a paper towel and burying it in a patch of neighborhood ‘soil.’
What I never realized until now is this—Rogers was bold, even subversive. As in the footage from 1969 when Fred disrobes his sneakered feet to dangle them, naked, in a baby pool with Officer Clemmons, at a time when swimming pools were segregated. And in one holy foot-washing moment, the Black and White feet are side by side. Having only one towel, Mr. Rogers pats dry Clemmons’ feet. (In case one assumes Mr. Clemmons was a token Black character on this show, consider his resume as an opera singer and playwright).
I am no longer a skeptic, having all the evidence I need to believe Fred Rogers was for real. He was nice and calm and found joy in simple things. I am also persuaded that this documentary has come at exactly the right time in the life of our country.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” has received a 99% rating from critics and a 97% rating from audiences, on Rottentomatoes.com. Why such popularity? In my view, the brisk attendance is a barometer of our national angst.
We crave kindness.
We now have a King Friday the 13th leading our country, delivering and encouraging insults. Calling us enemies and snowflakes, and worse. He is a narcissist showman making foolish proclamations that divide the neighborhood. He does not care who he offends and has no Lady Elaine Fairchilde to shame him. The emotional consequence, on all sides of the ‘debate” is as Daniel Tiger (aka Fred) asked in the lyric, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?”
Hope for the best in humanity. This sentiment does not sound like the view of a skeptic. But I am encouraged by the movie attendance and the realization that millions of children heard Mr. Rogers’ messages of acceptance between 1967 and 2000. Many of these children will have accepted his invitation to love their neighbors as themselves. Without lecture or dogma, he conveyed this greatest commandment. He evangelized self-respect, curiosity and kindness. Now we must practice what we’ve learned.
Mr. Rogers is deceased. Daniel Striped-Tiger is grizzled and gray, tucked in a museum cabinet in Pittsburgh, his stripes a shadow of their former selves. I am an older but wiser skeptic. And at 62 years, I value, more than ever, kindness and empathy, curiosity, satisfaction with simple pleasures, and love of the world. You might even say I am a “globalist.” As Fred said so well at a Dartmouth College commencement address(2002), “Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space. Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not.”
To read more blog musings by Kimberly Crum, visit her website.