Mind Matters — A Needed Neighborhood

While in Washington, D.C., recently, I went to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? with my husband and my son. The new documentary tells the story of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which aired on public television from 1966 to 2001.

I remember watching Mr. Rogers at 5:30 every night with my children from the time they were toddlers until grade school. He had such a calming effect on all of us at the time of day when everything was unraveling. His message to us—both adult and child—was both clear and kind. “I like you just the way you are … you are special.” That didn’t mean we were narcissistic egotists. Absolutely not! The message was one that people such as St. Francis de Sales has said: accept yourself, be kind to yourself. Whatever differences you may have is okay—you are a unique human being.

Mr. Rogers accentuated that our differences were what made us interesting and special and that we could be inclusive of everyone.

When the civil rights movement was burgeoning and there was separation of whites from blacks, for example, at parks, Mr. Rogers subtly confronted segregation. How? By simply having a little swimming pool on set where he was soaking his feet. Along came “Police Officer” Clemens, an African American, whom he invites to cool his feet. Officer Clemens demurs, saying he has no towel. Mr. Rogers says in essence, “That’s okay, use mine, soak your feet with me.” We see the camera close in on their feet, a black man and a white man relaxing and cooling off together. Such a simple and kind way to confront the racism of the day.

Mr. Rogers also invited another disenfranchised group to his show—he often included children with varying disabilities to talk with him. Again, rather than demeaning or pitying or patronizing anyone, Mr. Rogers met them with listening and caring, wanting to know their human story that connects to all of us.

Pittsburgh, where Mr. Rogers was rooted, was where we started our family. The “neighborhood grocery store” he used for one of his episodes was indeed our neighborhood store. We met him the day of the filming and he was as genuine off camera as he was on camera. Yes, he was the real deal. A man who set out to be a minister, he detoured to children’s television, then returned to become ordained as a minister of television.

He wanted to be an antidote to the demeaning and dehumanizing antics of TV and cartoons—the putdown of people and the pie-in-the-face slapstick of one upmanship.

While I was delighted to see his goodness and his message of care celebrated and affirmed, I was saddened to tears to see how his quiet wisdom has been lost in the loudness and crassness of our times.

How quick and easy it is to destroy the good that has taken years to build. The legacy and foundation of Mr. Rogers’ ministry still prevails even though many have worked to tear down what he has built. It is up to us to rebuild on the kindness, goodness, and caring he so lovingly taught and lived.