Fred Rogers left us words to continue to live by

Flying back from a wonderful family wedding in L.A., I had the opportunity to watch Morgan Neville’s outstanding documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” This amazing film beautifully unveils a portrait of children’s show host Fred Rogers.

Within the first 10 minutes, my less-than-subtle sobs prompted my seatmate to offer a tissue with a kind inquiry, “Are you alright?”

Actually, I assured her, I was more than all right! It felt as though I had just been reacquainted with an old and trusted friend whose caring, wise ways had helped to nurture my three kids — Jess, Becky, and Matt — through their early years. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” broke all the rules of children’s television: it had a slow pace, a soft-spoken “star,” a no-frills set, and its content sometimes included uncomfortable yet socially relevant topics, things kids might wonder about or downright fear.

One charmingly simple example of a potentially controversial issue was highlighted in the episode during which Fred was cooling his bare feet in a kiddie pool. Mister Rogers made it a point to invite Officer Clemmons, the neighborhood’s African-American police officer, to share the cool water by soaking his toes. At the end of the program, the toe-dipping friends even shared the same towel. This was Fred Rogers’ subtle but powerful response to his outrage at the fact that, during this time, African-Americans were routinely excluded from public swimming pools all over our country.

One of Mr. Rogers’ main goals was to help children deal with their feelings, particularly feelings regarding frightening aspects of world events. As I revisited some of the life lessons he had presented throughout his television tenure, a thought popped into my head: What would Mister Rogers say to children (and adults) about what’s happening in today’s world?

For example, children were likely confused when they watched the leader of our country make herky-jerky movements and talk in a jumbled way as he made fun of a disabled reporter. On a classic show back in 1999, quadriplegic Jeffrey Clay Erlanger maneuvered his electric wheelchair into Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. Fred chatted comfortably with 10-year-old Jeff and carefully worked to demystify aspects of Jeff’s illness and his wheelchair. In addition, Mr. Rogers was sure to spotlight the young boy’s strengths and his winning personality.

A couple of years later, during his commencement address at Marquette University in 2001, Mister Rogers stressed that, “Nobody else can live the life you live. And even though no human being is perfect, we always have a chance to bring what’s unique about us to live in a redeeming way.” Part of being a good neighbor is embracing the differences among all people.

Children were likely scared when they heard about a group of young soccer players lost in a dark, water-filled cave. Mr. Rogers would probably have praised the rescuers and talked about heroes. Much like today’s Marvel-filled world, Fred said, “When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me” (“The World According to Mister Rogers,” Kindle 501-503). Mr. Rogers would likely urge us to seek out and emulate the heroes in our neighborhoods.

Children were likely scared when they saw lines of angry-looking men yelling and carrying sticks on fire in the night and when they saw groups of grown-ups fighting in the streets the next day and when they heard that one lady was even killed when someone drove a car into her apparently on purpose. Mr. Rogers might have fallen back on a childhood memory when he talked to his audience about frightening things. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still many helpers – so many caring people in this world” (“The World According to Mister Rogers,” Kindle 645-647). One way to become a good neighbor is to reach out and help others in any way possible.

Children were likely scared when they heard about thousands of little kids being separated from their parents, placed in “cages,” and sent to faraway cities. When this atrocity occurred, Mr. Rogers would likely have reassured his young viewers that each one of them is special and that their parents will do whatever they can to protect them. Further, he would remind adults that, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes” (Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 1994). Fred Rogers would encourage all of us to find our hero within and work to achieve a peaceful, world-wide neighborhood.

Children were likely confused and scared when they heard our president express the desire to ban Muslims, Mexicans, and people from “s---hole” countries from entering the United States. In a college commencement speech cited in “The World According to Mister Rogers,” Fred reiterated one of his most famous assertions. “I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger. I like you just the way you are.” For more than 30 years, Fred Rogers ended each show with those exact words, “I like you just the way you are.” In Mr. Rogers’ world, neighbors come from many different backgrounds.

Though it has been more than a decade since “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” has aired, Fred’s caring advice is more relevant than ever. Our daily lives and our whole world would truly be better if we consciously worked to be good neighbors.

Salzman is a former English teacher at Lafayette High School.

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