A few months back I responded to a parent after my Student Success Project presentation that commented that SSP was an old school program needed for today’s world. My response was simple – “sad, but true.” I am being so bold to say that one of the “coolest reality celebrities” ever would agree – Mr. Rogers.
Fred Rogers’ is clearly a voice we need and want today. However, it’s hard to imagine a voice like his breaking through in our current climate.
‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ is a new documentary about Fred Rogers. It’s ironic how powerfully his words resonate today. But would America heed his lessons in today’s world?
The most controversial thing Mr. Rogers ever did is tell children that they are special; that their lives have value simply because they exist; that they don’t have to do anything sensational to be deserving of love.
This, the first in multiple generations of children is growing up without Mr. Rogers as their guiding compass, their affirmational therapist, and their neighbor. So it may be no coincidence that they are also a generation who have not just been told, but shown that their lives are dispensable.
“Won’t you be my neighbor?”—Really?
It’s an age in which a promise to build a wall helped win an election; in which families are torn apart at the border; in which there are travel bans, deportations, and DREAMers facing broken promises; in which thousands of people—America’s children—are plowed down by bullets and lawmakers can’t be bothered to legislate so that it won’t happen again…so that more neighbors won’t be lost.
Mr. Rogers knew children would need help processing the news. Smithsonian has a detailed description of the episode, in which Daniel, the hand puppet tiger, asks his human friend, Lady Aberlin, what “assassination” means after Robert Kennedy was shot. It’s a word he’d heard a lot that day.
“Well, it means somebody getting killed in a…sort of surprise way,” she tells him. The explanation is frank, but gentle, and necessary. Sadly enough today, even elementary kids know very well the definition without any explanation.
We are ravenous for the morsels of self-worth Rogers often fed us, to the point that the documentary was one of the hottest tickets at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
And that was 30 years ago when everyone hung on to every word he would say. Today’s public influencers are the loudest voices bellowing the most extreme rhetoric, megalomaniac personalities who pander and incite for attention.
The unfortunate thing is that it’s a lot easier to motivate people by appealing to their fears rather than their love. That’s just a sad part of how we’re wired as humans. If Mr. Rogers saw those two things, the main pulls of love on the one hand and fear on the other, he would say that fear begets anger and hatred and resentment. “So if you can address the fear, then you can address the hatred and anger.”
His show was part child development education and part ministry, revolving around the inherently recognizable idea of the neighborhood. A neighborhood provides understanding, safety, and familiarity. But it is also a place that breeds conflict. Real conflict. He wanted to help children make sense of all of that.
The film is not a liberal soapbox. Mr. Rogers is a children’s television presenter, actor, puppeteer, singer, composer, television producer, author, educator and Republican Presbyterian minister who shares values that I think most of us would agree are core, positive values.
There’s undeniable resonance today in that simple phrase: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” It’s an invitation in a time of division and even expulsion.
There’s no new Mr. Rogers, and there never will be. With many of my columns I receive both negative and positive feedback. It will be interesting to see what comments I get with this one. Rest assured I will be asked if there’s a Mr. Rogers “for today’s world.”
I would say it was never just his responsibility…but each of ours. If he taught us anything it’s to remind us we can all be a little more like him. I think it’s about turning on the Mr. Rogers inside of all of us and trying to live a life where “won’t you be my neighbor?” is a call to action and not a question.
This column is by Ritchie Lucas, Founder of The Student Success Project and Think Factory Marketing. He can be reached at 305-788-4105 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and You Tube as The Student Success Project.