It’s a Beautiful Day In This Neighborhood, or Why Mr. Rogers Matters

This will be my second time writing about Fred Rogers, the first was back in September 2011 when I was still attempting to write my ill-fated MediaBio blog. The reason I’m returning to the man the world knew as Mr. Rogers is because of his importance.

My wife and I have introduced Genevieve to TV. More precisely, our TV. I mean, the shows we watched as children. She’s been on a Muppet Show kick (which kind of sucks because the 3rd and, so far, last DVD set came in yesterday, and while the show had five seasons, only three have been released) and via Amazon Prime my wife introduced her to classic Sesame Street  (being my daughter, she prefers The Muppet Show). Prime also has Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Now, I’ve known the power Fred Rogers had for a long time, but especially since the incident I related the last time I wrote about him:

It was 2005, somewhere between May and July, and things had been a little bleak. I’d been separated from my soon-to-be-ex-wife (we finalized our divorce in September 2005) and was working at a local bookstore, which I would’ve loved had they paid me what I deserved, treated me the way I deserved, and otherwise didn’t have their heads up their asses (not all of them, just those who were in charge). I sat down to eat my lunch around 11:30/noon, and I only had twenty cable channels. My choices were game shows, talk shows, or PBS. One PBS channel was running Sesame Street. Blech. Another was running Teletubbies. Barf! The last had on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I decided to leave it on. I quickly realized that I remembered the episode from my childhood. I sat watching this show that I hadn’t seen in twenty years, mesmerized. At the end, Mr. Rogers looked into the camera and said in that way he had, “Just remember that you are special. That there’s no one else in this world like you, and that you are important.”

I can’t explain it. I began weeping.

***

I remember that day nine years ago like it happened yesterday. It was exactly what I needed to hear at that time.

So now Genevieve will ask to watch it and she was sick for the last few days so we put it on. She’ll end up playing, but Pamela and I are good with that, because we’re really the ones watching. I’ve seen episodes from before I was born. I’ve seen episodes from long after I stopped watching. I don’t understand why I never had Courtney watch it. I’m ashamed of myself.

The thing I keep noticing is how actually good and kindhearted Fred Rogers was. His meticulousness is evident in the show and the fact that he kept it pretty much the same from 1968 through 2001 is astounding. While Sesame Street changes with the times, Mr. Rogers’s set didn’t change in all that time. Picture Picture didn’t suddenly become a flat screen TV. The Neighborhood of Make Believe never got more complicated puppets or 3D characters. Hell, the same actors worked with him throughout!

I’ve cried several times recently watching episodes. Here’s a for instance for you:

So today, we were working our way through his 5-episode arc about work called “Mister Rogers Talks About Work.” The next-to-last episode featured him going to Wagner’s Market to buy some groceries. We get to meet some neighbors and see how a grocery store worked in 1984. While walking down the cereal aisle, he comments on how when he was a little boy, he’d want to get one of everything in the aisle, and the rest of the store, but how his parents wouldn’t let him get one of everything and he learned that people couldn’t get everything they wanted.

After getting his items, which shows him being friendly to everyone, he returns “home” and puts everything away, explaining how as a parent, there were reasons he had to say no to his children and that children can’t get everything they want. Then he announced it was time for make-believe.

So Mr. Rogers goes over to the bench where he operates Trolley and there’s a top hat there, closed. He pops it open to show his Television Neighbor, and as he takes it off and sits down says, off-hand, “All kinds of things you can think about and do in this world.” And then he sits down and gets Trolley.

The main theme of this episode is that not everybody can have everything. That choices have to be made and it’s the grown-ups in a child’s life who makes the choice. Once the child grows up, s/he can make the choice. This isn’t said with a snarl, or a wagging finger, but with love and respect. And even though that should be enough, it was the off-hand comment made as he was sitting down, “All kinds of things you can think about and do in this world,” that got me.

And there are! You and I, as adults, don’t need Fred Rogers to tell us this…but we do! How often in the busy grind of our lives do we stop and really pay attention? How often do we let life beat us down? The human mind is nearly limitless with imagination yet we begin to kill it the moment a child goes to school and is told to stand in line. Lines are important, so is order, but, as Mr. Rogers states at the end of the episode, so is play.

Fred Rogers ended his show in 2001. In December 2002, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. On February 27th, 2003, he died.

There has been no one before his death or since that has been able to sit down and speak to a child through the television without talking down to him/her but still being the adult. Some critics say his message to children, that they special, is the wrong message to send. I disagree. We are all individuals, there is no one else like the person we know ourselves to be, yet Mr. Rogers also gave us a message of love, of helping one another, of tolerance. Of peace.

I feel, in this time when 24/7 news talking heads, Twitter and Facebook hate and shaming, and mass-violence and teenage suicide rates are through the roof, Mr. Rogers’s message is needed more than it ever has been before.

Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for the love you showed me. Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for what you taught me when I was five, 28, and now 36. Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for being you. There is no one like you.

About Bill Gauthier

Bill Gauthier is a writer. His books include the collection CATALYSTS (2007), ALICE ON THE SHELF (2011), and SHADOWED (2011).

Posted on April 16, 2014, in Family Stuff, Life, Memoir, Opinion, Parenting, Pop Culture, Teaching, TV and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. If you haven’t seen this, I highly recommend it…

    • I actually have it on my Amazon Prime Watchlist. PBS did a great documentary in 2003/2004 that, I believe, is available only on iTunes.

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