"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." – Fred Rogers
Mr. Rogers became a hero of mine after I was no longer his target demographic. I was twenty-one by then, and well past watching his TV show. Truth be told, I didn’t even really like his TV show that much as a kid. It was far less flashy and fast-paced than Inspector Gadget or Astro-Boy. But all the reasons I wasn’t drawn to the show as a child are the reasons I am so grateful for it – for him – now.
Fred Rogers was soft-spoken, but formidable. He was like a wall: You wouldn’t notice his strength until you tried to knock him down. He was a child-advocate like the world had never seen, and has seldom seen since.
Mr. Rogers created a world for children who desperately needed it. As an adult, I learned the reason Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood didn’t grip me as a child was because I was lucky enough to have all of my needs met. I was well cared for. I was loved. My feelings were validated. Not every child was lucky enough to find this in their own homes; so Fred Rogers made sure they found it in his.
Fred grew up in a household that staunchly suppressed emotions. He was not allowed to show his anger or his fear or his sadness. This was especially difficult for him as he was frequently bullied, but had no emotional outlet. This stuck with him his entire life.
In the filmWon’t You Be My Neighbor, we learned that Fred still suffered the effects of this emotional neglect as an adult. His puppet, Daniel Tiger, was well-known to represent Fred’s true self, and inner-child. He stated that he found it easier, even as an adult, to express his emotions through the puppet. His son noted that whenever he needed to vent at home, and say something “Un-Mr. Rogers-like” he would do it using the voice he used for villainess puppet Lady Elaine Fairchild.
But it wasn’t just the lingering hurt that came from Fred’s difficult upbringing. He was driven by a passion to give children the voice he never had. He gave them the permission to feel and express emotions he so craved to be given as a child himself.
To watch him interact with children was magical. There was no rush. He paused and let them gather their thoughts, where so many of us would try to fill the silence with prompts. His patience with children was never-ending. All children were good, to Mr. Rogers.
His patience did not extend to adults, at least not so universally. He would not suffer hate. He would not abide cruelty. He would not entertain bigotry. If you look back on his shows, you will see that, while on the surface it seemed like a sleepy, saccharine show, it was political and sometimes downright serious. He tackled issues like war, and death. He made a conscious effort to be inclusive during a time when diversity was not common, and often frowned-upon.
And Mr. Rogers could kill with kindness. As headlines around the United States read of people of colour being banned from swimming pools, some even suffering intentional acid burns for swimming with white people, Mr. Rogers set up a kiddie pool in his make-believe backyard. He put his bare feet in to cool them.
When Officer Clemmons, an African-American man, popped by, he invited the officer to take a break with him and cool off. Not only did Mr. Rogers happily share a pool with Officer Clemmons, he shared his towel with him too.
Just in case it wasn’t clear that Fred was making a defiant stance here, he stared directly and pointedly into the camera for several seconds as the two men soaked their feet together.
Many years later, Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons would end up soaking their feet in that same pool. During the time that had lapsed, in the real, not make-believe world, Francois Clemmons had come out as gay to Fred, an ordained minister.
Fred sang a song about loving people just as they are, and told Francois off-camera that that was his way of letting him know that he was good and he was loved no matter what. That he should not change in any way. Mr. Roger’s capacity to love transcended social taboos and even strict religious teachings.
When the movie ended, the entire theatre sat silently in the dark for some time. We were all thinking the same thing: Fred Rogers lived a long, meaningful life, but we lost him too soon.
When the 9/11 terrorist attack happened, he came out of retirement to reassure the public. He knew we needed his calm, loving advice, and he gave it freely. I so wish we had him now to comfort us in his kind, familiar way.
Right now, it feels like the world is falling apart. Perhaps that’s because Fred Rogers is no longer in it.
But, maybe it’s best that he is not seeing the world as it is now. His wife, Joanne, is confident that were he still with us, he would be doing his best to spread love and calm fears to children and adults alike – but it would be too much to ask of him. When 9/11 happened, it nearly broke him. His unshakable belief in the goodness of people was shaken. He could barely keep himself together to film the PSAs to help us cope.
The world today is not worthy of Mr. Rogers.
But the children in it are. So instead of longing for the days when we could lean on this beautiful man for hope and guidance, we need to work on continuing his legacy for children. We need to be the people these children need, as he was the person we needed for us. We need to listen to them. We need to be their fierce protectors.
We need to let them know that above everything else, they are loved. Just the way they are.