I am no film critic, but I know what I like, and I like what I know! Though I’ve never considered myself a “movie maven,” I do find myself attracted to art films, the kind they show at Kendall Square or West Newton Cinema…where the dress code is decidedly Birkenstocks and hemp.
This summer, we saw the Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t you be my Neighbor. I have to admit, initially, I was not enthusiastic about attending the film, but my favorite first grade teacher (my wife, Faith) convinced me that it would be a mistake to skip this one.
I was never a Mr. Rogers fan. He started his very successful run after I had grown out of children’s programming, and by the time my own kids were at that age, they only watched the show on rare occasions; they were much more enthralled by the faster paced, more colorful Sesame Street.
Briefly, for the uninitiated, Fred Rogers after college, attended seminary and was destined to become a Presbyterian Minister. But he noticed the poor quality of children’s programming in those days. Believing the mostly cartoons were far too violent; he decided to create a children’s puppet show. The format slowly evolved to include other characters, and in 1968 Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was picked up by public television. The rest, as they say is history.
I must warn you, if you haven’t seen the movie, it is a real tear jerker. Not because at the end he dies…we already know that…Mister Roger’s has been gone for over fifteen years.
One critic suggested our tears are motivated by guilt. Most of us of a certain age are more familiar with comedian Eddie Murphy’s irreverent send up on Saturday Night Live, when he shamelessly parodies Mr. Rogers’ gentle and kind tone. A whole generation of baby boomers stayed up late on Saturday nights, often numbed by various intoxicants, some only recently made legal, laughing hysterically at this nerdy, seemingly naïve, very square television personality.
But now that we are adults, many of us parents, some grandparents, we now realize that the values Mr. Rogers promoted in his show, using puppets, choo-choo trains and funny voices, are seriously lacking in our contemporary discourse.
At a time when the national debate has become so coarse; when our politicians seem unwilling to promote an idea without denigrating, demeaning and defaming their opposition in the process, when meanness and divisiveness have become the common currency of communication—these days—more than ever, we need a voice like Mr. Rogers!
What seemed like childish innocence at the time, it has now become apparent, in stark relief, that we’ve lost something precious in our culture. Whether inspired by his religious education and his spiritual outlook, (though he was never overtly religious), Mr. Rogers gently peeled away the layers of cynicism and bitterness and revealed the still small spark of goodness, and virtue in every human being—the potential to live lives of righteousness, integrity and honesty.
And lest you think he was naïve or hid from the contemporary issues dominating the national debate, he did not!
In one scene, and frankly, I rarely watched the episodes when they were first broadcast, so most of the clips in the documentary were new to me…he and the African American man who played a police officer on the show took their shoes and socks off and together, soaked their feet in a small pool of water…two black feet, and two white feet. It was Mr. Rogers’ way of teaching children, mainly in communities reluctant to allow black kids into their schools, and particularly their public swimming pools, that integration was the only right and moral thing to do.
Fred Rogers exuded humility. He invited a host of visitors on his show, and with curiosity, genuine interest and respect asked them about their lives. Guests included famed cellist Yo Yo Ma, and Jeff Erlanger, a young boy in a wheelchair, whom he unabashedly asked, no doubt channeling the curiosity of his youthful viewers, about the reason Jeff couldn’t walk, and what it was like to always need to use a wheel chair. And then together, they sang one of Mr. Roger’s signature songs. The sniffles were audible from the hundred or so adults sitting in that theatre in downtown Great Barrington, Massachusetts the day my wife and I saw the film.
The last scene in the Mr. Roger’s documentary is at once the most painful, and at the same time, uplifting. It is a clip of his message on the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attack. Mr. Rogers spent his entire career celebrating the spark of goodness and benevolence in every child, and ultimately in the soul of every human being. Now, what message could he possibly give to the adults who, as children, were raised on his positive and hopeful outlook, when the scars of such a national tragedy, not a natural disaster, but one born of hate and absolute evil were still so raw?
He expressed pride in the children, now parents who grew up believing in every human being’s inherent goodness. He encouraged them to let their own children express their feelings as they find ways to bring healing in many different neighborhoods; and mostly to assure them that they are safe. And finally, affirming everything he believed in, he concluded, “I like you just the way you are.”
Today at a time of unprecedented mean-spiritedness and social division, Mr. Rogers’ message is more relevant than ever. In his simple, gentle and sincere way, he rejected cynicism, distrust, fear and anger.
Mister Rogers calmly, confidently and respectfully taught us that every human being is precious, that we all have a right to be who we are, as long as we don’t hurt anybody. And finally, a decade and a half after his death, Mr. Rogers’ voice still resounds as he reminds us how we are supposed to behave, and live, and love.
Mr. Rogers image attributes: PBS Press Room via Flickr.
A bit about our guest blogger
Rabbi Dr. Robert S. Goldstein has presided over Temple Emanuel, Andover since 1990. He lives in Andover with his wife, Faith, an elementary school teacher. They have three daughters.
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