As I begin my career in school administration this week, I’ve been paying attention to the many mentors in my life. While there have been plenty of role models on the job and outside of work, I’ve also found inspiration from mentors whom I have never met – writers, public servants, activists and storytellers, to name a few.
Recently, I got the chance to learn again from a childhood mentor. My wife and I saw the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which revisits the life and work of Fred Rogers. If a theater near you is playing this film, I strongly recommend seeing it.
It’s been a long time since I watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and this documentary illustrates the degree to which Rogers combined his training in ministry, child development and television to offer a program that was unlike any other show before or since. Rogers offered deep commentary on the world while also speaking directly to children about the most basic of human emotions and behaviors.
The core of Rogers’ message was not complicated, yet it is so difficult for many of us to adhere to with consistency. He offered complete support to the children with whom he was speaking, both on screen and in person, without any judgment. He told children that they were all special in their own way, and did not ask for their back stories in order to believe this to be true. He encouraged them to care for one another, and to use love as a guiding principle in life.
He opened each show by inviting his TV friends into a community of neighbors, and closed each show by reminding us that “it’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.” When I observe the stress that so many students experience today, as they try to figure out how to succeed in highly competitive academic, athletic and social media environments, Rogers’ words seem almost radical in their simplicity and importance. And when I learn of children and adults struggling in so many ways both in my own neighborhood and far beyond it, Rogers’ message seems to be about the most important one I can think of.
Rogers also dove directly into the most controversial issues of the day, and spoke with children about violence, family separation, race, intolerance and disabilities. When he dipped his feet into a children’s swimming pool along with François S. Clemmons, an African-American actor who played the role of “Officer Clemmons,” the two men did so at a time when many public swimming pools were still segregated. When Rogers’ puppet character King Friday XIII built a wall around his castle in 1968, he did so during a period in which many Americans were worried about the changing makeup of their neighborhoods (a sentiment that continues in many places to this day). The stunning sight of this puppet leader “building a wall” 50 years ago is not lost on viewers.
When Rogers’ puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asks what the word “assassination” means, he is speaking right after Robert F. Kennedy’s murder. One can imagine Daniel doing the same today with terms such as “terrorism” or “migration” or “school shootings.” And in a different episode, when Daniel asks another character if he is a “mistake,” we see Rogers going straight at the essential issue of childhood self-esteem and self-love.
Fred Rogers was so compassionate that he lives on as a caricature to some of us. We think of the opening song, where he changes into his sweater and sneakers, with the traffic light and the trolley rolling around the bend. Some of us smile at the memory, and leave it at that. But this film reminds us just how much was going on inside that 30-minute program, and how real the Neighborhood of Make Believe really was. Throughout the film, director Morgan Neville interviews former crew and cast members, but as the film nears its end, he slices together images of each cast member crying. It’s been 15 years since Rogers died, but his work and his love left such a profound impact on these individuals that they are moved to tears in discussing the man. And that’s just the adults.
Despite the many struggles around us today, there are still a lot of great role models in this world. But it can be hard to focus on selfless giving, on true service toward others, and on the need to talk through the tough stuff. Fred Rogers did all of those things, pretty much every day of his adult life. I can’t say I’ll be able to do that as a school administrator. But if I can reach for just a sliver of the impact he had, I will at least be on the right track.
In an archival interview shown in the film, Rogers puts it this way: “Love is at the root of everything – all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”
Here’s to the love, and not the lack. Time to get back to work.