WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR: Did Mr. Rogers Fail?

Did Mr. Rogers fail?

This question hangs heavy over Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a movie that is thankfully less of the hagiography I expected and more an examination of one man’s attempt to make a difference. But did he? I’m not just pulling that out of thin air – very early in the movie one of his friends asks that very same question.

The question comes naturally to anyone familiar with the state of the world, and especially of this country. Shit is fucked up, and it’s fucked up everywhere. Nerves are frayed. Things are bad, and they’re bad in the ways things get when kindness and compassion and patience and, most of all, love are forgotten. We live in a world where love is seen as a weakness. This isn’t the world that Mr. Rogers wanted. This isn’t the world he was trying to create by talking directly to little kids through their TVs.

Fred Rogers wasn’t a TV guy. In fact, he may have hated the medium. But he also understood its power, and he understood it from the first time he saw a television set. Home for break from college, about to head to seminary, he saw his parent’s brand new TV and was taken by the possibilities of the mass medium, and he put off the Lord for a few years to learn how to make TV.

Eventually he ended up with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and right from the beginning the gentle, soft tone for which he was known was there. But also included from the beginning was a gutsy desire to address modern, current issues. Rogers wasn’t just teaching kids about their feelings in some generalized way, he was connecting it to what they experienced in the world. Very early in the show’s run, back in the black & white days, he dedicated an episode to assassinations, specifically that of Bobby Kennedy.

The show connected with children, but Rogers remained frustrated. He felt he wasn’t being taken seriously, that his message – rooted in a welcoming Christianity that avoided Church dogma and harkened back to the inclusive love of Jesus – was being ignored. He eventually tried to do a show for adults, but his style – soft, gentle, slow, quiet – REALLY didn’t work there.

It’s this aspect of the story of Fred Rogers that fascinates me. I’m of the Mr. Rogers generation, and I watched the show… sometimes. But I’ll be honest, this show never worked for me. There’s stuff the movie boasts about – Rogers setting a one minute timer and sitting in silence to let kids know what a minute was – that define why I couldn’t sit through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I was a Captain Kangaroo man, myself; entertainment was always key to me. Fred Rogers seemed to have a disdain for entertainment, or at least a fundamental mistrust of it. He comes across like a health food guy who believes that if it tastes good it ain’t good for you.

This, I think, is the problem that Fred Rogers couldn’t overcome. He understood the power of TV, he understood what it could do, but he hated it so much that he could never engage it on its own terms. The show was clearly an oasis in an ever-coarsening, ever-quickening sea of shitty kiddie TV, but was that enough? Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a success, and Fred Rogers touched many, many lives with his program, but his stubborn refusal to make his show meaningfully fun (at one point in an archival interview he downright SNEERS at the idea of kid’s TV being all clowns and balloons, which sounds to me like, I don’t know, something kind of enjoyable. The doc never tells us what Rogers thought of PBS mate Sesame Street. I’m curious now) reduced it to televised broccoli. There will ALWAYS be people who flock to broccoli, but there needs to be a way to convert broccoli haters as well.

If there’s one thing Won’t You Be My Neighbor? convinced me of, it’s Fred Rogers’ sainthood. I don’t mean to say he was flawless. The film skirts around the edges of Rogers’ darkness, and I think his children might have some stories to tell about him (one coworker says that as he got older Rogers aged from being the open, wondrous Daniel Tiger into the cantankerous, authoritarian King Friday). It does not skirt around his sexuality, spending quality time to convince us that Fred Rogers was NOT gay (but it does discuss how he forced actor Francois Clemmons into the closet and into a sham marriage), but it does downplay the darkness a little bit.

You have to know that saints aren’t pure. They’re human, so they have darkness. No, when I say that Fred Rogers was a saint I mean it in the most spiritual way possible, that he was a human being who could create feelings of holy connectedness, especially with children. There’s a lot of footage of Rogers working one-on-one with kids, and this is always the most affecting stuff in the movie. I wept watching Rogers talk to a young girl with a protective helmet on her head as she gave him her drawings of X the Owl (I’m tearing up right now as I write this). The compassion the man has is so present it’s almost visible, and it’s not condescension or pity. Watching him talk to a kid about the kid’s kitten being killed is incredible, because Rogers doesn’t comfort the kid, he lets the kid comfort Daniel Tiger. Seeing him with Jeffrey Erlanger, a quadriplegic boy, is absolutely extraordinary. In fact, this is Rogers at his best, not trying to create a connection through the tube but actually connecting with a live child right in front of him.

It seems to me, with decades of hindsight, that Rogers was battling a rising tide that has left us flooded and submerged in the 21st century. He was fighting for attention spans in a world that was speeding up, he was fighting for quiet in a world that was getting louder, he was fighting for kindness in a world that valued meanness more with every passing day. The desire to speak to adults must have come from an understanding that once kids aged out of his audience – once they were no longer toddlers – they were being influenced by other, uglier things. He was setting these kids free, hoping that some of his lessons – lessons about loving one another, loving oneself, being patient, offering forgiveness, speaking truthfully – would have sunk in. But he wasn’t sure, and so he must have wanted to find ways to spread his own little gospel, the good news of Fred Rogers, to people who might yet act on it.

Now, at 44 years old and in recovery and with a new spiritual mode of living I GET IT, I get what he was trying to tell me as a kid. I couldn’t hear it then. I walked into Won’t You Be My Neighbor? expecting to feel chastised by my earlier inability to grok Fred Rogers, but it actually only made me understand more why he never spoke to me. Fred Rogers grew up an angry kid, but he held it in. He had all this anger and all this pain, but he couldn’t let it out. I grew up an angry kid and didn’t know how to stop acting out; that gentle, quiet thing was not just alien to me, it was actually threatening because I felt so out of place in his world.

But now I find myself wondering how to communicate the beautiful wisdom of Fred Rogers (and like five thousand years worth of other holy men) in ways that people can understand. In ways that people like me, unsettled and angry and screwed up and frightened people, can hear it. And that, I think, ends up being the answer to the question that opens this piece.

Did the Buddha fail because all people did not become enlightened in his time? Did Jesus Christ fail because only a handful of people were his followers at the time of his death? Did Martin Luther King Jr fail because he didn’t live to see a day when equality reigned? The reality is that as long as there’s a person alive who has heard of Mr. Rogers, who understands his message, and who tries to live their lives by those standards, he will not have failed.

The reality is that saints are signposts, not destinations. And I don’t even think they’re signposts FOR destinations; in the best of times they’re the reminders that help keep us on the road, and in the worst of times, when it seems we’ve lost the road altogether, they’re the beacons that bring us back. Mr. Rogers hasn’t failed us at all and now, in the darker hours, he’s showing us the way back to the road.

I’ve seen people lament that they wish OTHERS would watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, because it might teach them a thing or two. But the lesson I took from this film wasn’t that Fred Rogers should do the work for me, or that this documentary should soften the hearts of others, or that it’s too late for hope. The lesson I took is that Fred Rogers spread his message because he knew it had to be spread. He couldn’t wait for someone else to do it, he had to do it himself. From the first minute he saw a television he understood the ways he could use that device to communicate. Even when he was full of doubt and despair he kept going, trusting that the message was right, and that it would reach the right people.

That’s the takeaway for me – it’s not whether Mr. Rogers failed, it’s whether I’m going to fail Mr. Rogers.