If the truth be told, as a youngster I preferred Sesame Street. Maybe it was the crazy creativity of the show (or the fact that I’ve always been a sucker for Muppets), but when Sesame Street wasn’t on, I would watch Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, starring the sweater-clad Mr. Fred Rogers himself. There was no way Mr. Rogers’s puppets could compete with the Jim Henson-designed puppets. They didn’t even have moving mouths. His sets were cheap, homely affairs. There were no cartoons or special effects. There was a trolley—the one cool effect—that ran through his house and disappeared into the Land of Make Believe. There was absolutely nothing to set the show apart—except Mr. Rogers himself. There was something soothing and captivating about the way he spoke—slowly, calmly, reassuringly. It was as if he were speaking only to me. Looking back I have a surprising number of memories from his show. I remember him making a paper airplane with deliberate instructions. I remember him visiting a factory and a mail-sorting facility. I remember him feeding his fish, changing his sweater, changing his shoes. And those songs—although the Sesame Street ones were wackier and honestly cleverer, it’s the Mr. Rogers ones I still remember. Turns out, I liked Mr. Rogers more than I thought.
Recently I viewed Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a lovingly-crafted documentary about the impact of Fred Rogers, and for the first time I realized the creative genius of Mr. Rogers. It was not a creativity of smoke or mirrors. It was a creativity of reality. Mr. Rogers was not a character. He was always only himself—warm and human. That was part of his intentional method of relating to children. In a television landscape filled with loud noises and clownish buffoons, he wanted to be a real person to children and connect to them in a real way. He wanted to treat children like real people with real feelings—a revolutionary idea at the time. In another unsuspected twist, although his show spoke to children, he didn’t shy away from the bitterness and pain in the world. He addressed tough issues like divorce, assassination, disabilities, and segregation. He did it all in a reassuring, comforting way.
Mr. Rogers’s creative idea was that television, which he personally did not enjoy, could be a tool for good. He wanted to educate, reassure, and heal the children of the world. Even though he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers put off going into full-time ministry to try out television first. Television, he thought, would be his ministry. Mr. Rogers had a deep Christian faith, and when he told children they were “special,” he meant that each and every one of them was a child of God. His lifelong goal was to show love over the airwaves and teach children to show love as well. “Won’t you be my neighbor?” was his invitation for the children of the world to love their neighbor as themselves.
Naturally, this caused me to think of the teaching profession. Mr. Rogers shares many similarities with a public educator. He knew education should be available to everyone. (He adamantly defended Public Television when it seemed like its funding would be cut.) He believed every child could (and should) learn important lessons in life. He believed children were smart enough to comprehend the “big issues” of life, so it’s best not to shy away from them. Like most teachers, he didn’t have a huge budget and never became fabulously wealthy from his fame. He focused on making connections and doing the very best he could. In the process he made a difference in the lives of generations of children.
One of the most important things we do as teachers is make connections. You won't find "building connections" on a list of state-mandated objectives. But it's crucial. Whenever students know that we care, they will care to learn from us. I don’t consider myself to be touchy-feely or overly emotional, but if I want to take a page from Mr. Rogers’s book, it’s that making connections is more important than flashy lessons and teaching tricks.
I encourage everyone to view Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. It just might restore your hope for humanity and give you some fresh inspiration for the teaching profession. At the very least, I will guarantee that it will make you smile—and perhaps cry.
I’ll end with a quote from the man himself:
“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.”