I Have Always Wanted To Be A Neighbor Like Fred Rogers
I don’t have many personal heroes. Even people who were formative and influential in my life, people I love and feel fondly toward, I don’t necessarily consider heroes. I don’t know why. It’s not a conscious choice; I have always been a bit devoid of people I would call “my hero.” Do I admire people? Sure. Is someone a hero? Absolutely, but not usually not my hero. I have a hard time personalizing heroes.
Fred Rogers, however, is one of my rare heroes. He was a rare person, generally; I know many good people, but I have seldom known people who embodied goodness the way that he did. I have seldom met people who almost never stumbled into human weakness and remained so truly humble that their near-perfection didn’t set your teeth on edge. People who didn’t strive to be good but seemingly couldn’t help themselves. People who carried so much goodness in their hearts that there mostly wasn’t room for jealousy or hate or anger or cynicism or even fear.
I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, but it’s only as an adult that I have come to deeply admire Fred Rogers. His decision to go into television was not for avarice or even a creative itch; he hated television and set out to balance the distasteful programming that he saw with programs that could work as an agent of positive change and development. It took him a short time to see the damage that television had the capacity to do, especially to children; it took him equally long to see the potential and decide that he would pursue that instead of going into the ministry. (His parents were quite shocked. He was resolute.)
Every aspect of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was geared toward the benefit of the children watching. He kept a tight rein on the show’s content, consulting with developmental psychologists to help shape the show. Fred Rogers insisted that the show be slow-paced and as real as possible. He didn’t like editing the show, preferring one continuous take to spliced-together moments; he felt this was more honest and that the slower pace would be more beneficial to children watching. He wrote all of the scripts and did not allow for ad-libbing, sometimes stopping a take because he didn’t like a particular word. Tom Junod wrote in Esquire that he stopped a take once because Mrs. McFeely referred to a dog as having an owner, and Mr. Rogers did not like the word owner, and can we say that we took the dog home instead? because he didn’t want to convey to children that pets were to be owned.
I recount these things because they’re extraordinary in the television world and they show an incredible amount of backbone in this gentle man. Fred Rogers was kind and big-hearted; he was not a pushover, however. He testified twice before Congress about television: once to protect funding for public television (which was not only protected but increased) and once to protect consumer rights to tape television shows to watch at a later time. (Does the network panic over VCR technology sound familiar at all? History repeats itself.) He kept strict control of his programming in an era where all programming became increasingly consumer-geared, in a time when children’s shows trended toward being extended commercials for toy lines and cartoons were used to hawk everything from cigarettes to hamburgers. He kept strict control of himself, displaying patience and kindness and keeping himself from vices like smoking and drinking and even eating meat.
And he is beloved for this. He is beloved for his constancy and his integrity. It is his constancy and his integrity that draw me in; as a woman with Aspergers, it is heartening to read or watch Fred Rogers be who he is, out loud, without fear. Granted, he was in some position of privilege–it’s harder to argue with a white dude who, even if briefly, attended an Ivy League school–but he had no interest in going along to get along. He rubbed against the grain and he didn’t care because it was right that he did so; this strikes me deeply, as I could not go with the grain even if I wanted to. I am seemingly incapable. Fred Rogers showed me that it is okay to go my own way and do what I believe is right.
Fred Rogers is also one of the few people who can talk about God in a way that almost makes me believe in God again. I can never actually cross that threshold, barring clear evidence that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming, but his humility and his descriptions of grace take me back to a place in my youth when I felt what I thought then was the touch of a loving God. I don’t find being an atheist now to be a disillusion when I remember those moments; I fully believe in grace. I don’t think it comes from God, but it exists–it exists in us. That love is our love. People like Fred Rogers remind us that we can touch that grace, we can live it, if we’re still and we listen for it.
Maybe more than anything, I want to be good. Not just nice or fair or liked, but genuinely good, and to live in a state of grace–of graciousness. I know I will never be Fred Rogers; I think his goodness was bred in the marrow of his bones, in his DNA on a molecular level, and I am too humanly frail, too selfish and too cynical and too thoughtless at times and too afraid and too angry. I can try, though–and I know that despite my flaws, he would love me just the way I am. That means everything in the world.
I’m not the only bookslut who has written about their love of Fred Rogers. Check out Tony’s piece about his man crush on Mister Rogers here.