… Just the Way You Are

Lynn Horton is a freelance writer and editor who in another lifetime taught English and Creative Writing at McIntosh High School and later worked in the Starr’s Mill High School Media Center.

If I am to be perfectly truthful, and why would I not be, there is no reason why I should be ashamed that I barely remember Fred Rogers, or that he died on February 27, 2003. Why should I care? I mean he wasn’t a relative or anything. Except I should remember! I should feel great loss whenever I think of him. Every time I hear his name, I should stop and think and remember all the days that this kind, soft-spoken, gentle man visited our home. Because Mr. Rogers was our neighbor. And he wanted to teach us to be kind to one another, to keep one another safe, and he wanted to ask us to help make this a better world.  I think that Freddy Rogers would be so disappointed in us, his neighborhood friends.
Saturday afternoon Bill and I joined some friends from Senoia and drove over to Newnan to see the documentary film that has been receiving high marks from folks all over this country. Among the four of us, there were four quite different opinions. None of us gave “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” a five out of five. None of us scored it the same 99 percent given the film by Rotten Tomatoes. We were all, I believe, surprised at how the film characterizes this beloved icon as a man with a political agenda rather than a man with a mission, a ministry even, to help young children feel good about themselves. We agreed that we saw Mr. Rogers as a pretty uncomplicated guy who wanted to impart the message that it is “the good stuff inside us” which has value; it isn’t prizes and honors that nourish our souls. It is the simple, the essential things in life, which are important.
Almost 50 years ago, it was a man in blue tennis shoes and a cardigan sweater, using a few little hand puppets, a train trolley and a cardboard castle, who worked his way into the hearts of American children. He was motivated by the idea that throwing pies in someone’s face or bopping someone on the head while slapping them silly was not funny, nor was it a good use of television. There was nothing that made him madder than one person demeaning another.
Instead, he believed that children needed to know that they could be liked “just the way they were.” And that while every day could be “a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” it was important to address the sad and frightening events that sometimes threatened small lives as well as grown-up ones. So he talked about divorce, and bullies, and fear, and anger. Bullied himself as a “shy, fat kid,” he used the piano as a device by which he expressed his anger and unhappiness. He showed kids it was ok to be mad sometimes, at other children, even at parents, but always he showed them the right way out of those feelings.
It was Rogers’ grandfather who told him more than once, “You’ve made this a special day Freddie — just by being you.” Now if we would just go out into our neighborhoods, our towns, cities, and states, and spread the message, I believe that we would make Mr. Rogers very, very proud.
My friend gave voice to what the rest of us were thinking:  “I went to see a film that reaffirmed all the goodness and kindness in Mr. Rogers’ message, a film that like the episodes I remember, was full of happy, uplifting moments. So, where were those episodes that touched us with gladness and happiness?”
Well, that film IS out there. Those warm and wonderful scenes ARE out there. But it is called “Mr. Rogers and Me,” and was created by a young man, Benjamin Wagner, a journalist who was indeed the real-life neighbor of Fred Rogers on Nantucket Island. Rogers befriended Ben, inviting him into the home given him by his parents and where he and his wife lived part of the year. Over time, Ben developed a deep love and admiration for this man which led his brother Christofer and Ben to put together this excellent film.
The biblical qualities and upstanding morals held by seminary-trained Rogers were part of his daily life and part of his critically acclaimed show. Following the simplicity of the Golden Rule, he believed we must lift up our neighbor, loving our neighbor as our self. He believed, too, that respect was the greatest gift we could offer. Mr. Rogers modeled this respect towards the regular characters that came and went in his “house” and in his TV neighborhood. He did on occasion use national and world events to share with his viewers both young and old. Integration, the very public death of Robert Kennedy, and the terrible fate of the Challenger Space Shuttle were events that Rogers discussed quietly and without sensation in an effort to help them understand the world around them.
A few months before his death from cancer, Fred recorded a video message to those who grew up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger. I like you just the way you are. And what’s more, I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe. And to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods. It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.
He once asked if we would prefer to be “accuser or advocate.” I know what I choose. And he once asked a large group to take just a minute and think of one person who has meant something very special to our lives, who has taught or given something of themselves that we will always remember. “I’ll count,” he reminded us. I know who that person is in my life.
Do you? “I’ll count.”

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