Required Viewing: “Won’t You be My Neighbor”

Thirty or forty years ago, you never would’ve convinced me I’d be sitting in a movie theater in 2018 weeping about Mister Rogers’ life. But there I was last week, sitting with family, tears flowing down my face while “Won’t you be My Neighbor?” played on the screen. I never really knew this man who was Fred Rogers.

We went to see the documentary after two of my millennial sons raved about the reviews they were reading. I needed to find out for myself—especially after one of my sons told how Mr. Rogers washed the feet of the Black police officer on the show, Mr. Clemmons, at a time when race riots were taking place in our country and Black families in the South were forced from swimming pools.

Confession: when I was a child and watched Mister Rogers—and when I was older and watched the shows with my sons—I thought Mister Rogers was a little odd, a little boring, and predictable. Put on a cardigan everyday? Don’t you have some variety in your wardrobe? And always throw that shoe from one hand to the other? Aren’t there more tricks up your sleeve? And can we talk about that set? A little more creativity and pizazz, please—especially after decades on the air.

But just the fact the show survived for decades without pizazz speaks volumes about the power behind Mr. Roger’s philosophy toward children and towards all people. He believed in the God-given value of each person and treated all with kindness and dignity. When he hosted special guests on the show, he watched each guest with intensity. When Yo-Yo Ma came on and played his cello, Mr. Rogers watched Yo-Yo Ma, not the cello. When a young boy, Jeffrey, came on the show to talk about being confined to a wheelchair after a tumor destroyed nerves in his body, Mr. Roger’s excitement over meeting Jeffrey and hearing his story made you think the boy was fortunate to have such a special piece of equipment to carry him through life. Jeffrey beamed during the interview.

Children in the audience mirrored Fred Rogers’ piercing stare. Shots of young faces showed captivated kids staring at this quiet man with unblinking eyes—this gentle man who always told them he liked th

em just the way they are. Were any of us even aware we needed to hear this message? Were any of us aware we needed to speak this message to others?

I watched his spell on my own children when they were young. One particular son came into the world with an excess amount of energy and whirled about our home like a Tasmanian devil in perpetual motion. But the strangest thing happened when Mr. Rogers came on the television set. My son walked over as if in a trance and sat down in front of the television, falling silent and still for one hour. I often stood behind him in shock, wondering how this man in a cardigan sweater could quiet my son in a way few others could do.

Mr. Rogers believed children had the right to process hard issues and feelings. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Lady Aberlin had a conversation with Daniel Striped Tiger about the meaning of the word assassination.  King Friday the Thirteenth wanted to build a wall around his castle (!) to prevent change from coming to the Make Believe Kingdom, so they set up barbed wire around the castle. The puppets in the Land of Make Believe had a conversation about why change might be scary and the wall came down.

Children weren’t the only people captivated by Mr. Rogers. While going before congress to ask for 20 million dollars’ worth of funding for Public Broadcast Stations, Fred Rogers hypnotized one of the more negative senators the same way he hypnotized his young audiences. As Mr. Rogers shared his philosophy in  his characteristically gentle, sincere voice  about the needs of children and how their feelings shouldbe validated, the senator began to list to the right as if under a spell, his tone changing to mirror Mr. Rogers’ gentle tone. In the end, PBS received their funding.

Fred Rogers also believed in the power of television to be used for good and that the medium had the real chance to build community and healthy children. “What we see and hear on television is what you become,” he once said. Sit on those words for a moment and think about the images beamed into the homes of our nations children. Scary?

As the credits rolled at the end of the documentary, all of the tears caught me off guard—mine and the tears of others. Why do so many people cry when they see the movie? Certainly nostalgia played a part. I felt nostalgic for my own childhood, my sister’s childhood, and my sons’ childhoods, but I also felt nostalgic for kindness, slowness, and quiet. We live in an environment in stark contrast to Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. Few people care about the welfare of children as deeply as Mr. Rogers and are able to teach children about hard topics in a healthy, kid-friendly way without forcing them to be adults before their time.

I left the theatre wanting to see the world through the same eyes as Fred Rogers and offer the same compassion and kindness to all. In other words, this ordained minister called me to a higher standard of living and loving—and to a slower, gentler lifestyle.

Do you share this longing? I encourage you to see this movie.