I don’t know about your family, but in mine there are often different versions of what went on in it. Which is why memoir editors insist now that prior to publication, anyone mentioned by name must sign off on our memories: did what we remember happening, actually happen — how they remembered it.
Take whether it was true that my mother made me eat her cold, lumpy rice pudding for dessert on threat of punishment. Or whether it was true that my brother Russ stored dead birds in the basement deep freezer, next to the mixed vegetables.
Or whether it was true that our youngest son Ben, after his afternoon pizza excursion with his dad, would plop in front of the television and watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Without fail at 4:30 every weekday afternoon, and then Sesame Street. An hour or so of respite screen time.
When I messaged him and asked him what he liked about Mr. Rogers — and his neighborhood — responded: “I never watched him really. Seems nice. I was all about Sesame Street.”
Surely he must have. I remember the song, “Who are the people in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, the people that you meet each day.”
I might have, he admitted, but I don’t remember, he insisted. I might have eye-balled it, he owned, but it didn’t go in. Didn’t register.
And besides, it turns out, that catchy ditty about neighborhoods wasn’t describing Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood — it was from Sesame Street. Where there has always been a neighborhood as well, an increasingly diverse one. Guesses used to be it was a knock off of the Upper West Side of Manhattan — or Greenwich Village.
Now all bets are on Queens, the most diverse borough/community in the country.
No, it wasn’t our 31-year-old who was all in with Mr. Rogers. It turns out it was our oldest son, Josh, who is now 46, who tells me he loved being swept away into an imaginary world of kings and ladies and talking kittens and skunks and tigers.
And that is what Fred Rogers had hoped for when he got at least temporarily sidetracked from a straight vocational path into ordained Presbyterian ministry when he decided to go into the television industry. He was interested in transmitting what he saw as the basic Christian value of loving your neighbor. He often admitted that he had actually hated TV, especially the shows being produced for young children; with what he saw was inundating them with demeaning, pie-in-the-face slapstick and manic pace.
Instead, he wanted to use what he called a fabulous instrument, that small television screen, to share what has been described as his “deep and simple faith in a beautiful, noble, sacred life with kindness as its foundation.” Not just to grab their attention, but to teach children, and through them, all of us, how to be human.
The opposite, unkindness, was familiar to Fred Rogers. Biographers tell us that he struggled as a young boy making friends and would frequently be bullied for being overweight, taunted as “Fat Freddy.” According to one, he had a lonely childhood, making friends with himself as much as he could. He had a ventriloquist dummy; he had stuffed animals, and would create his own worlds in his childhood bedroom. See the through-line to his show.
Starting behind the scenes, away from the television camera, Fred was given an opportunity in February 1968, when the larger neighborhood of this country was in the thick of the Vietnam War, to have his own 30 minutes long daily children’s show on a public station in Pittsburgh. It was black and white, so it was not possible those first years to see that when he came through the door it was in a red coat and coordinated tie, and he would go to the closet for his red cardigan and change into purple sneakers which he was in no hurry to finish lacing, as he greeted you — his television neighbor and friend.
On that very first show declaring: “I like you just as you are — your facial composition, I wouldn’t change you or rearrange you.”
And in that very first week of programs taking its themes directly and indirectly from what was happening in the world, which children do not escape — alluding to the Vietnam War, showing King Friday in a conflict, building a fence around his kingdom. In that first year, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, he directly dealt with them, in a deliberate, calm, compassionate way, while emphasizing — as he always did — that expressing feelings of fear or anger was important, and that it was the role of adults to respond, to reassure, and to keep them safe.
In 1971, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood moved to PBS (and color television) and a faithful (pun intended) national audience, airing for nearly 33 years, the longest running program on public television.
With a short hiatus during which time Rogers tried to bring his same approach and messages to adult audiences in various formats. With much less success. He returned not so much due to his relative lack of reception in adult land, but because he was disturbed over reports of children injuring themselves, even being killed attempting super hero stunts. He wanted to help them understand the difference between reality and fantasy, and to help keep them from harm.
Over the years, whether in direct conversation or make believe dialogue, one writer tells us that from the murderous year of 1968 through the last episode just before the September 11 attacks, “he took American Childhood – and Americans in general — through some very turbulent and trying times.”
Throughout the show’s long run, he was pretty much a one person, low tech show who wrote all the scripts, created all the characters, did all the voices of the puppets, dealt with all the childhood fears and difficult subjects from divorce to terrorism.
On an episode in 1969, he invited the neighborhood police Officer Clemmons to join him in cooling themselves off by dipping their bare feet in a kiddie wading pool. The character, played by operatic tenor and actor Francois Clemmons, was among the first African Americans to have a regular role on children’s television, and the simple scene of them washing their feet together was a direct, if gentle, challenge to segregated swimming pools.
In another episode, the theme was mistakes. A puppet skunk is playing hide and seek and when come upon suddenly, gets frightened and accidentally sprays a friend.
Everybody makes mistakes he is told. Daniel Tiger, who was said to be Rogers’ surrogate on the show, tells Lady Aberlin, one of the real actors in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, that he had been wondering about mistakes. He was smaller and tamer than others of his fellow beasts. Am I a fake? Daniel asked. Am I a mistake?
You are fine as you are, Lady Aberlin reassures him. You are my best friend. I love the way you look, talk, the way you are growing. All tigers, all people are different.
No one is a mistake was Rogers’ message, all of us are worthy, and yet the host would not let Francois Clemmons, Officer Clemmons, a gay man, acknowledge his homosexuality in the 1970s, fearing that the show’s sponsors would disapprove.
His own mistake, one he would eventually rectify.
Rogers would confess on occasion that it was tough to always look with love and have confidence in the years ahead, Yet on the last episode on August 31, 2001, as Washington Post reporter David Montgomery noted: “Fred Rogers looked at the camera and said in that voice of unconditional love that can sound more sincere than one’s own parents: “I like being your television neighbor. It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.”
Fred Rogers died of cancer less than two years after his show ended, but as one news headline assured, Mr. Rogers still lived on. His capitol N Neighborhood continued through reruns, Mister Rogers’ websites, educational books and child development videos. There is a spin-off series, Daniel Tiger. An exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History where one of his signature cardigan sweaters is on display (many of them knitted by his mother).
This year alone, the 50th anniversary of the premiere of his show and his Neighborhood, the postal service will be putting Rogers’ face on a Forever Stamp, and a documentary on his life was in major release. A biopic starring Tom Hanks will be released next year, and they look amazingly alike.
On television, the nods to Rogers are still in evidence, with a new program, Kidding, starring comedian Jim Carrey as Mr. Pickles, a Mister Rogers-like host of a children’s show whose calm and nurturing public persona is undermined by the death of one of his twin sons in a car crash and a split with his wife.
But it is clear that Rogers would have been less thrilled with, perhaps even more than mildly unhappy with being a posthumous icon — than with leaving a legacy of helping children grow as confident, competent, and caring human beings. Which is the mission of the Fred Rogers Center.
Housed in a Benedictine college, the center describes their work as promoting the power of human connection as the foundation of every child’s healthy development. Whether as parents, educator, media creators, or neighbors, each one of us, they believe, as a unique and enormous potential to nourish children’s lives. And make for happy, snappy new days.
It was the thesis of Fred Rogers’ life and work, born from his own story, his theology, and his politics. But is it sufficient?
He literally constructed his neighborhood — that familiar set that only rarely gave us a brief filmed glimpse of an actual neighborhood — a dog walk, a short stroll to visit a lampshade hat maker.
Neighborhood — a district, area, locale, quarter, community. Real places in real time.
You told me about a few of yours: playing outside until past dark, with no end to the fun to be had; kick the can, jump rope, tricycle and bicycle riding, wagon pulling, climbing trees, setting stages for play productions, with many people to play with and things to do — some friendly grown up neighbors, some cranky. Another of you in a neighborhood with just a smattering of kids, but a small park with a basketball court.
My own childhood neighborhoods, too many of them, with more or less isolation, more or less stimulation, more or less companionship. Middle class. Mostly white.
Then there are the stories and studies I have been reading about and hearing about.
Last week, a black man arrived at the entrance of the building in which he lives in St. Louis late on a Friday night, only to find himself blocked by a white neighbor who demanded proof he lived there. It was the latest instance of a white person caught on a video confronting a black person in their neighborhood performing everyday activities such as babysitting, eating lunch, or in 2018 going to the pool.
It happens too frequently in my neighborhood that has been in transition for as long as we have lived there — alarmed reports of suspicious strangers who turn out to have lived there, or their grandmother or auntie had lived there for 40 years and they were visiting.
And then the disparity between the conditions in the blocks that are nearly all or all white now and those a few streets away: the bars on the windows still, the cracked sidewalks, and the potholes. Different neighborhoods, different quality of life.
I don’t always agree with columnist David Brooks, but in a piece this week titled Neighborhoods are the Units of Change, he articulated the more that is necessary to assure that children and all people have a chance to thrive. In it, he wrote that you probably have heard of the starfish story. About the boy on the beach who finds thousands of starfish washed up on the shore, dying, picks up one and throws it back in the ocean. A passer-by asks him what’s the point of that? All these other starfish are still going to die. Well, the boy, responded, I saved that one.
Many of our social programs (and indeed Fred Rogers’ work) are based on that theory of social change; we try to save people one at a time. We pick a promising kid in a neighborhood and give her a scholarship or mentor one at a time, assuming that the individual is the most important unit of social change.
Maybe the pool story is a better metaphor, Brooks writes, than the starfish story. As a friend of his put it, you can’t clean only the part of the pool you are swimming in. If you are trying to give real chances, to improve lives, maybe you have to think about changing many elements of a neighborhood in a systemic way, at a steady pace.
A few years back now, as part of the Unitarian Universalist anti-racist, anti-oppression, multi-cultural curriculum Building the World We Dream About, our Atlanta congregation participated in an exercise where we walked or drove the area one mile out in all ways from the church building, taking notes on what we saw. Then reflecting and coming up with three areas of concern and possible action.
Instead of being on automatic pilot on the way to lunch at Panera Bread Company or picking up things at Target, armed with cameras and notebooks, and eyes wide open, we saw the pockets of marginal low income housing with few bus stops, the closed library, the food desert when the only supermarket shut down and a Quick Trip popped up instead. The school with playground equipment in bad repair, the lack of sidewalks.
What if we did the same thing — traveled a short or longer distance to see what neighborhood we live in and the neighborhoods beyond? And what is it we might do to be their neighbors — in these larger ways.
As Mr. Rogers’ mother would tell him: Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.
Helpers are another word for allies.
May we be so.
(Delivered at Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on October 21, 2018. Audio courtesy of AUUF and includes their choir parody song “People in the Fellowship” – words by Martha Law and Amy Kaiser.)