Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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If you’re like me, and political tensions, social divides, inexhaustible news cycles, and worldwide crises have got you down, I have some practical advice for you. Go watch the Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? immediately.

My husband and I caught a showing of it the other night at a local theater, and it was the soothing balm I didn’t know my soul so desperately needed.

I remember watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a kid, though my recollections are fuzzy and unreliable. Despite these grainy Technicolor memories, while watching the documentary, I immediately recognized Fred Rogers’ sweet smile, his tempered voice, his infamous cardigans, the simple yet resonant songs he composed for the show, and the iconic characters, including Daniel (Striped) Tiger and King Friday the 13th, that he brought to life each week.

The nostalgia produced through revisiting the sights and sounds of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was lovely, but where this documentary truly excels is in moving beyond the nostalgia to reveal everything you likely missed as a kid. And man, I missed a lot.

Sitting in that theater, watching clips from the show and from Fred Rogers’ life, I felt like I was seeing this television icon, as he truly was, for the first time. And I saw so much.

I saw a man who valued the experiences, feelings, and potential of children at a time when the general public knew little about childhood development. I saw a man who, unlike many adults, believed in and understood the validity and intensity of childhood emotions.

I saw a social justice pioneer, who invited a black man to dunk his feet in his kiddie pool on syndicated television during a time when racial divides ran so very deep. The same man treated children with disabilities the same way in which he would treat any child, demonstrating inclusiveness and eliminating social stigma through example.

I saw someone who didn’t talk down to kids, but instead did so with dignity. Someone who didn’t sanitize the good, the bad, or the ugly to make it “child appropriate.” Instead, I saw a man bravely explain the Challenger tragedy, the assassination of JFK, and the terrors of war in ways in which children could easily understand and process.

I saw a man who single-handedly saved PBS from budget cuts, not by railing or shouting or evangelizing, but by speaking from the heart and appealing to the humanity of the members of the U.S. Senate. (By the way, his address is less than seven minutes, utterly incredible, and you can watch it HERE.)

I saw an ordained minister who spread a message of love and acceptance through his work in the television industry, a message that was deeply influenced by his Christian beliefs, but never came across as manipulative, coercive, or self-serving.

The result of all these revelations? Flat-out weeping.

I thought that I went to the theater prepared. I had my tissues at the ready. But you guys, I wasn’t ready.

I’m not a fan of spoilers, so I won’t tell you the exact scenes during which I cried, but I will tell you there were three of them, along with other countless moments where my heart swelled in my chest and goosebumps broke out on my skin.

Seriously, go see this documentary. It’s an absolute treasure. Just like Fred Rogers was.

People always say that we study history in order to learn from it. Often, we we look back and examine tragedies or catastrophes, so we can learn from the chaos and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

But the opposite is true in regard to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? This documentary is an opportunity to look back at something (or rather someone) implicitly good. It’s a chance to learn from the example of a man who had a profound and positive impact not only on educational television programming and American pop culture, but (more importantly) on individuals’ lives.

Most of all, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a reminder of how incredible our communities could be if we simply learned to look beyond ourselves and made a concerted effort to value the lives and experiences of others.

Personally, that’s a neighborhood I’d like to live in.

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