Mister Rogers? I love you.
How I came to love Fred Rogers, and why I didn’t at first.
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Mister Rogers & Me
There was Children’s TV before I knew there was such a thing; public television existed, but hadn’t reached the prairies of South Dakota, where I spent much of my first ten years. By the time we lived in a town large enough to have PBS, I was eleven years old — far too old for any of the lessons involved. Even so, I loved the frenetic nature of Sesame Street, the rhythmic phonics of The Electric Company. I’d secretly switch over from Gilligan’s Island to public television, watching for the songs, animation, puppets, and Morgan Freeman’s beautiful voice.
The undersaturated retro simplicity of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood did absolutely nothing for me. The strange hand puppets? The dinging trolley car? An unapologetic opera singer? And above all else, someone with the last name of “McFeely”?
No thank you, I was not having it.
Mr. Rogers embarrassed me, to be truthful. The cardigan. The sneakers. Feeding the fish. And my god, the songs. His voice reminded me of my grandmother singing hymns beside me in the basement of the First Church of Christ Scientist in Aberdeen, South Dakota. When he came on, I’d switch back to whatever other rerun was on during the day. Something like Green Acres.
And then at age 14, I was left behind by my parents during a move. I wouldn’t live with my parents again until I was almost 20. I couldn’t afford a TV during those teen years, but I kept current with the state of children’s TV through my much younger brother, who watched a lot of Nickelodeon. The early Nick was commercial free and full of animated European shorts.
I loved it.
I moved back in with my family in 1980, the year Mount St. Helens erupted and covered the city of Portland with a rain of volcanic ash. My parents sent my younger brother to stay with grandparents in Minnesota for a month, until the ash settled down. He was eight years old, and baffled by an afternoon ritual there in Minnesota. At 3 PM, my grandmother would call him in from wherever he was playing, sit him down in front of the TV with a Wonder Bread and Cheez Whiz sandwich, and turn on Mister Rogers.
We did not grow up with Wonder Bread, Cheez Whiz, or Mister Rogers. But we were raised to be endlessly, achingly polite. So my little brother sat down and ate the sandwich and watched the show, not really liking either one. He endured this wonderful, awful pairing without a peep of protest. Was it a relic from my uncle’s childhood?
I dismissed Mister Rogers, and went on with my young life. When I was twenty, I enrolled in the local university and got a job as a nanny to augment my BEOG money. I worked for a doctor, watching her three kids after school into the evening. She told me they all sat down at 3 PM for snacks (carrots, cheddar and Triscuits) and Mister Rogers.
I probably scoffed. Mister Rogers?
I remember the warm twinkle in my employer’s eyes, her sweet and squirrelly smile. “Oh,” she said, “He’s so gentle.”
This employer taught me many things when I was 20. She taught me how to prepare chicken and fish and brown rice and magnificent salads, lessons I put immediately to use. She taught me how to relax on beach vacations, which takes practice. She tried to teach me that intelligence would be the most important attribute to seek in a man, and I eventually did learn that one, but not for a while. And by example, she taught me that a single woman in her forties and fifties could be vital, attractive and pursued, a lesson I wouldn’t realize the importance of until I was in my forties and fifties.
She also taught me to watch Mister Rogers.
The keyword was gentle. He was gentle with his viewers, and his viewers need to be gentle with Mister Rogers. We need to quietly anticipate the regularity of his entrance, his changing into his cardigan, the occasional plucky toss of a shoe from one hand to the other. We need to mildly care that the fish are hungry, and that he enjoys answering that hunger with just the right pinch of food. We need to approach Mr. McFeely with interest, since he delivers items of interest to Mister Rogers. We need to listen to the songs, because they contain surprising and beautiful messages about the anxiety children feel when they discover that boys and girls are a built little different from each other. We need to wait patiently for the dinging of the trolley, since it’s going to deliver us to the Neighborhood of Make Believe.
I had more fun than expected while visiting the Neighborhood of Make Believe with my young charges. I learned about the traits, the voices and the psyches of each and every one of the hand puppets; Daniel Tiger’s fearfulness, King Friday’s pomposity, and the selfish, grabby narcissism of Lady Elaine Fairchild. I experienced all kinds of happenings, but my favorite was an opera about a cow who wanted to be a potato bug. See some of it here. It was the very worst, and the very best. I couldn’t believe how perfect it was.
Only one of my own children loved Mister Rogers. And she was the child I took to see the Mister Rogers documentary. We watched this wonderful portrayal of a singular, strange man who shared his personal vision of love and kindness with the world. I had a shiver over his attachment to the number 143, because I fear that this formerly chubby child only felt lovable when he weighed exactly 143 pounds. He was prescient, he was kind, and he believed he was doing important work.
Guess what? He was.
I am so sad that that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was completely shut out of the Oscars. But I’m not sure that Fred Rogers would have cared. He was too busy with his imagination and his belief in kindness to care too much about awards.
But it would have been the best acceptance speech ever.
My children loved Fred Rogers. Jonathan was just 2 when I had Daniel. As soon as I left the delivery and reached a room with a phone,I called home to tell Jon that he had a baby brother named Daniel. In a voice filled with awe and excitement, he said, “Daniel Strip-ed Tiger?” I’ll admit it would have been less painful to push out a hand puppet than an 8 pound baby, but Jonathan was a bit disappointed.
Well, a boy can dream…