Won't You Be My Neighbor?

"It felt like he was talking directly to me," that was my daughter Mia's memory of watching Mr. Roger's as a young child. "Each time he returned home, took off his sweater, changed into his sneakers and fed his fish, I thought he was sharing his daily routine with me personally," she recounted.

Even at age eleven when I took her to hear him speak at the National Association for the Education of Young Children Conference in Toronto, she had the same feeling as he spoke in an auditorium filled with thousands of people. My children had traveled with me to the conference, and I made sure they were in the audience that day when he gave the keynote speech. Like any good parent I tried to limit my children's exposure to television, but Mr. Rogers' show had definitely been on the menu of allowed, if not required programming when they were younger.

There was something comforting about his predictable rituals, and when the "trolley" showed up to take off to the "land of make-believe," my daughter was reassured that this grownup she had come to know and trust could use his imagination just like she did. As for that time in Toronto in 1997, her memory matched her feelings as a younger child: in an auditorium filled with thousands of people, when he spoke, she felt like Mr. Rogers was talking directly to her. And when at the end she waited in line to shake his hand, she felt like she was reuniting with an old friend. Mr. Rogers had that magical ability to connect.

My own introduction to Mr. Rogers was in 1968, during the first season of the program, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.  As a freshman in college at the time, I almost never watched television, I don't think the dormitory where I lived even had a TV, but news of his show was traveling fast. My mother was fascinated with him and very impressed that my 4-year-old nephew would sit in front of the TV, enthralled by this soft-spoken, sensitive, and slow-moving guy. Since I was studying education, she was interested in what I thought of his show, so I made sure to catch a few episodes when I was home on break, and I immediately was touched. I felt that I had found a kindred spirit who was as passionate as I was about young children and what they needed, especially at a time when commercial programming for children was all about pushing consumerism, especially sugary cereals.

All these years later, I thought that I knew everything there was to know about this remarkable man... but I was wrong. The film, Won't You Be My Neighbor, is an intimate look at this pioneer and revolutionary. Through interviews with him, his family, colleagues and numerous clips of his program, the viewer is invited not just into Mr. Rogers' neighborhood, and the "land of make believe " but into his world, both the private and professional. In viewing, Won't You Be My Neighbor, I learned a lot about my personal hero.

The second surprise of the film for me was the realization that as an educator I had completely internalized his approach to connecting with children. I knew that his calm demeanor was a model for my own interactions with young ones and that his belief that children should be treated with honesty and respect had informed my work for the past forty years, I just didn't realize how much!

I recognized that he is the person I most frequently quote when coaching parents and even used his following quote on the Little Folks School's first brochure back in the nineteen seventies: "Children...are creative. They have to be. It requires a tremendous amount of experimentation to come to understand both the outside world of things and people and the inner world of self and feelings."

When I have encouraged parents and teachers not to shy away from difficult topics, such as divorce or death, I was modeling an approach he had demonstrated throughout his television series. In 1968, it was considered revolutionary to introduce a word like "assassination" to a young audience, but that's exactly what he did when Robert Kennedy was shot. He understood that this dramatic story was everywhere and that there would be no way to shield children from the news. So rather than hide or ignore it, he faced it head-on with a discussion with one of his puppets. And as he famously reminded children, (a lesson he learned for his mother) when something bad happens, always look for the helpers, there will always be helpers. 

Sometimes his response to the world around us was not so direct, such as his efforts to promote inclusion and diversity. Without fanfare, on one episode, he invited the African-American postman,the character "officer Clemmons",  to share the hose as they cooled their bare feet together in his kiddie pool on a hot summer day. This at a time when there were still segregated swimming pools in the very city, Pittsburgh, that the show was broadcast from, was a powerful and significant message to his viewers, both young and old.

In addition to chronicling his story from 1968 until his death in 2003, the film lays out a historical timeline of significant events and cultural shifts in our society during his lifetime and how he incorporated a response to those events into children's programming. The material was always presented with honesty and sensitivity. And always there was the underlying message, one that I have echoed many, many times, while the world has changed dramatically over the last half-century, what young children need has not.

I was reminded throughout the film of how I had heard him speak about young children and what they needed and how I had applied his words to my life as a parent and as an educator: it was as if he had been talking directly to me.

143 (see the film to understand this closing!)


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