I cried seeing the trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in the theater a couple of months ago, so I knew I’d be emotional when I saw the documentary. I had no idea what I was in for though.
I loved Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when I was a kid. To say he was my one of my best friends is no understatement. I loved the Neighborhood of Make Believe with Daniel Striped Tiger, Lady Oberlin, Henrietta Pussycat, and all of the rest. I loved Picture Picture. I loved the songs. In fact, I had (and still have) two Mister Rogers records.
Mister Rogers gave us life skills. He taught us about loving everyone regardless of their race, disability, or any other difference. He helped us grieve death and divorce. He taught us to regulate our emotions through the song What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?.
The movie did not disappoint. It had every Mister Rogers moment you hoped it would have, including Mister Rogers and Officer Clemons in the wading pool during the time when African Americans were being run out of white-only swimming pools; Mister Rogers helping adults and children process the assassination of Robert Kennedy; and the full story behind the appearance of Jeff Erlanger in 1981 who taught us all about disabilities (including a surprise at the end). It also included his 1969 congressional testimony.
One of the most enduring pieces of Mister Rogers legacy is how he liked us for exactly who we were, which was encapsulated in the song, It’s You I Like. Surprisingly to me, Mister Rogers received much criticism over the years claiming he pampered kids and falsely built them up to be entitled by telling them they were special. He addressed this criticism in his commencement address at his alma mater, Dartmouth College, in 2002:
It’s you I like … What that ultimately means, of course, is that you don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say ‘it’s you I like,’ I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch — that deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate; peace that rises triumphant over war; and justice that proves more powerful than greed.
Shortly after he spoke these words and with about ten minutes left in the movie, I was openly sobbing, as was everyone around me. The woman, who I didn’t know, next to me wrapped her arm around my shoulder and pulled me into her. We sat like that for two or three minutes — just two strangers, both crying, being moved by a man who we both loved and who profoundly impacted our lives. Eventually, we parted, but as the credits rolled, she reached out again. This time she took my hand, kissed it, looked me in the eye, and said, “I love you.” Through my tears, I managed to say “Thank you. I love you too.” Then she and her husband walked out of the theater.
I don’t like hugs, but I loved this one, and it’s helped me open up and hug other people this week when I was asked for a hug. Mister Rogers is still teaching me life lessons.
I don’t know who this woman was and I’m glad I don’t. Not knowing allows me to think she was anyone I happen to see on the street. Mister Rogers was all about spreading love and kindness. Not knowing who this woman was reminds me to silently say, “I love you” to everyone I encounter and put love and kindness into the world.
Mister Rogers went off the air in 2000, returned shortly after 9/11 to remind us to “look for the helpers,” and died in 2003. Last week, in the wake of the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, the CDC issued a report that said that the suicide rate in the United States has increased by 25% between 1999 and 2016. I don’t know if there is cause and effect here, but I can’t help but wonder if we had more Mister Rogers, if we’d have less mental illness and less suicide. What I know for sure is that it couldn’t hurt.
Original episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is available for streaming on Amazon Prime. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is showing in select theaters nationwide. Please see both.
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