Remembering Mr. Rogers: Why You Should See Won’t You Be My Neighbor

I needed to restore my faith in humanity after listening to an endless loop of the heartbreaking cries of children separated from their parents by Trump’s border policy. I needed to hear the voice of Mr. Rogers, a man who embodied empathy, kindness, caring, and especially love of children. So I switched off the news, shut down my computer, and went to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the documentary about the life of my personal hero, Fred Rogers.

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When I arrived at the theater, three school buses were parked in front. Worried that the show would be sold out to a school field trip, I was shocked to discover very few folks in the Mr. Rogers movie. Mostly, they were people my age. The kids were obviously seeing Incredibles II. And that’s too bad because Won’t You Be My Neighbor is where they should have been. Children today need to hear Fred Rogers telling them,

“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”

Having watched Mr. Rogers with my kids and read his writings as an early childhood educator, I expected the movie to be a nostalgic trip down memory lane, but it was far more than that. The documentary by Morgan Neville was a window into the man whose ability to understand and accept children for who they are was extraordinary. His belief in the innate dignity and unique worth of all children, their specialness, was not the sense of entitlement that his critics blame for infecting a generation of children. Instead, Fred Rogers saw the value of every child, understood the importance of their feelings, and believed in respecting all children regardless of race, religion, gender, ability, economic status, or family structure. In his neighborhood, immigrant children would have been received with love.

So often during my career in early childhood education and as a parent, I asked myself, what would Mr. Rogers do or say about this? I know he was dispirited after 9/11, even though he put out a series of public service announcements to try to help children with their fear and anxiety. He told children what his mother told him when terrible things were happening, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

An ordained Presbyterian minister and lifelong Republican, Mr. Rogers was the embodiment of a kinder, more civil America in which the true values of his faith were reflected in his respect for children. Take a few minutes to listen to his testimony before Congress when Nixon tried to cut funding for PBS:

I can’t imagine how Mr. Rogers would have reacted to the images of children taken from their parents and housed in former Walmarts, tent internment camps, or “tender age shelters” where infants and toddlers ripped from their parents are supervised (not cared for) by people instructed not to touch the kids. Fred Rogers’s death from stomach cancer in 2003 was a great loss to the fabric of American life, but I don’t think he could have found the words to comfort children from the horrors that are being done to children just like them in the name of securing our borders.

What could he say to people like Trump’s former campaign manager and still spokesperson, Corey Lewandowski, who responded “Wah wah” on Fox News to the report that a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome was taken from her mother. Lewandowski went on to say, "What I said is you can pick anything you want ... but the bottom line is very clear: When you cross the border illegally, you have given up the rights of this country." There are no words of comfort in the face of this, but perhaps these words from Mr. Rogers will make some Trump supporters rethink their allegiance to this administration:

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. 

I cried many times watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I cried for our cowardly and callous leaders who will never understand what Mr. Rogers meant when he said, “Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.” I cried for our country that has lost its way. I cried because I can’t find an answer to the question that plagued Fred Rogers throughout his career, how to make goodness attractive. But I am thinking about his answer.

By doing whatever we can do to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own--by treating our “neighbor” at least as well as we treat ourselves and allowing that to inform everything that we produce.

Today, I try to comfort myself by remembering what Mr. Rogers called the three ways to ultimate success,

“The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.” 

I am trying to understand the folks who voted for Trump and probably still support him. I feel a lot like Fred Rogers did when he came out of retirement to tape his post-9/11 public service segments. He questioned what good this action would do in the wake of such overwhelming evil and fear. But then he used a Hebrew phrase that has always guided my life, “We all are called to be tikkun olam, repairers of creation.”

Take a break from the horror of what the Trump administration is doing to innocent children to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Take your children and neighbors to see it. Then do whatever you can to repair the world.

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