When my friends and I were in middle school, we sometimes made jokes referencing him. In high school, unless we had a young sibling at home, we had long since stopped thinking about him. During our early years of “grown-up” life, perhaps we didn’t think about him at all.
Until we had kids. Then we wanted him back. But after 2008, we could no longer flip on the TV and find him.
He was gone.
That’s when most of us realized that as children, we received the grace of one of the most loving men in U.S. history. A man we never met who looked us in the eye and told us a few simple words:
“You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are.”
From middle school through high school, though we may not have thought about Mr. Rogers like we did when we were small children, we lived most of our lives benefitting from his grace. We carried his gifts into our relationships with friends, teachers, parents, siblings, love interests, and others with whom we interacted. Mr. Rogers made us all better people, every day.
He was a professional, with a heart for the minds of children. Fred Rogers wanted each of us to be able to cope with life, to deal with “the mad inside.” In 1969, he knew that the lesson to be learned from watching two men work out their differences was more beneficial and necessary for a child than watching people shoot each other up. Watch that video. You won’t be sorry.
As children, we knew Mister Rogers would see us off to school or be waiting for us when we got home, or both. We knew that Mister Rogers would never be mean to us. He would never yell or scream at us. He would show us how to socialize with our neighbors, our peers, and how to be respectful to our parents. He would never leave us. And he would always, always love us.
Like so many of you, as a child, I believed every word he said. Because of his genius in choosing to speak and look directly at the camera, I believed he was saying it specifically to me. As did you. And like many of you, as an adult, I still want to believe.
Mister Rogers knew that we, his little viewers would watch his show and then venture out into the world. He knew that out there, we would realize that there are a lot of people who didn’t see us the same as he.
But whatever Monday took away from us, on Tuesday, Mister Rogers put it back.
Contrary to rampant rumors, Fred Rogers was never in the military. He was never a sniper or a special forces veteran. No, his eternal heroism is much greater than that.
This post isn’t meant to solve a bunch of problems. It’s not meant to promote any side of the current conflict on gun ownership or point out that “AR” stands for ArmaLite Rifle, not “assault rifle.” This post seeks to point out what hindsight has proven to be startlingly obvious.
I wonder how many children aged 2-5 in the year 2018 have ever heard of Mister Rogers? My 3-year-old has no idea who he is. She knows who Barbie is. She knows the songs to Frozen and Moana. She can sing along with her sister to Lady Gaga’s Million Reasons. But she wouldn’t know Fred Rogers from a stranger down the street. Neither would my 8-year-old. Nor my 11-year-old, for that matter. Call it nostalgia, but something about that makes my heart hurt. And it hurts even worse because I know it’s my fault.
How many kids were still watching Mr. Rogers in the early 1990s? The 2000s? Production stopped in 2001, and the series no longer aired in 2008. The early ’90s saw a plethora of other types of shows on cable television. When did the masses stop receiving his message?
The moment Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were walking through the halls of Columbine High School, shooting scores of students, murdering 12 of them and a teacher without remorse, I was attempting like mad to serve drinks, chips, queso and tortillas to keep up with the demand of people on their lunch break. This was how I paid the bills during college. A few hours later, I finished my shift and went upstairs to take a break before the late afternoon rush started.
I heard horror in the voices coming from up the stairs. Some kid shot a bunch of kids in a school in Colorado. We didn’t do much Internet or social media in those days. Most of us didn’t have cell phones, I wouldn’t have one for another three years. Smart phones had only been invented a few years prior and were not a staple. We still got our news from the evening news or actual pages we flipped the day after things happened.
A shooting in a school was something we had never thought about. That was April 20, 1999. I was 22 years old.
I’ll be 41 in a few weeks. My kids are 14, 12, 11, 8, and 3. The four oldest have been trained on how to react to a locked down campus. They know to some extent about what to do if an active shooter is on campus. Our littles don’t quite get it yet, but the two middle schoolers finally understand that every day they go to school, they could die there. Some days, when life is simply supposed to be okay, the anxiety cripples my wife, as it does so many other parents.
We ask ourselves: How on earth did we get here?
School violence in the United States dates to July 26, 1764. A group of Delaware Indians killed the schoolmaster and 9 students. The list since then is voluminous; it would take hours if not days to read the details of all the times a person has been shot at a school in the United States. School violence is not a new thing. The addition of advanced technology has certainly made shootings more violent and instantly notorious, but school violence is not a problem novel to 2018, Anno Domini.
So, what’s the kicker now? I’ll give you a hint.
Go research the reasons for the school shootings up until 1998 (Charles Whitman is a notable exception). That is where you will start to scratch your head and wonder: Why? Before that, the vast majority were due to accidents or a verifiable dispute between two or more parties. But for the most part, there was almost always a distinctive reason someone tried to shoot someone else.
Why did Charles Whitman or Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold or Nikolas Cruz or so many other rampage shooters do it? While theories abound, there is a paucity of answers.
The questions of the day in the United States: Why are these students killing their peers and how do we make it stop?
One group wants to make it all about gun control, banning certain types of weapons. One group wants to make it all about more protections on campus, adding more weapons. Another group wants to make it all about mental health and putting more money into supporting the mentally ill. And yet another group wants to blame it on taking God out of school. These are but a few of the groups that are trying to scream over each other. When I read people bashing each other over this on social media or in the comments of online articles, the noise gets too loud, too fast. So much division and hate. There is something missing at the forefront of all of these arguments.
It’s the same thing that’s missing when adults violently beat each other, right in front of their crying children, over a plastic grocery bag with a photo of a celebrity on it (I had the video, but it has since been removed).
And in that missing piece, I think we find the ultimate answer.
Respect for life. Unconditional love. Compassion. Entertainment that doesn’t glorify violence. Spending time getting to know people with human interaction and touch rather than by looking at a screen. Placing time with your child over your time in the office. Showing children what loving parents should look like. Holding conversations while looking someone in the eye. Talking about the elephant in the room. Teaching kids how to deal with conflict head-on in a productive, positive way rather than fighting their battles for them. Practicing tough love. Teaching children how to give and accept direct and honest communication. We could all add to this list. It could be never-ending.
I look at this list and have one recurring thought: Maybe it’s time to bring Mister Rogers back.
Not just the show.
Everything Fred Rogers Stood for in 30 minutes a day. The melting pot of love, compassion, grace, forgiveness, acceptance that he served into the lifeblood of this country every day for over 45 years.
I’m not the only person writing about current events that feels this way. This morning I read a beautiful piece by Melissa Blake that was released in the midst of writing this post. I find that not coincidental, but telling.
Fred Rogers was the only parent some kids ever had. Whether it was a home invaded by the ugliness of divorce or the perils of substance abuse or domestic violence, a child could flip on the TV and experience the consistency that Mister Rogers provided with grace and love every day of the week. When a child was hurt or lost, Mister Rogers would soothe the emotional wound or shepherd them back into unconditional love.
You’ve seen it in your Facebook feed lately. Or maybe you saw it on Twitter. Perhaps you viewed it trending on Youtube. But you know what I’m talking about. Fred Rogers, addressing the U.S. Senate, taking on Rhode Island’s Senator John Pastore.
Pastore starts out dismissive, ready to boot Rogers from the room. But after a few minutes of calm, firm and informative speaking, Fred Rogers has one of the toughest Senators of his time eating from his hands. In less than 6 minutes, Rogers garnered millions in funds for continued programming of his show.
For the same reason Fred Rogers aka “Mister Rogers” had millions of kids watching him from 1963 until his creation finally stopped airing in 2008. Because every day was a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Because something as simple as watching a man you trusted change his shoes or play simple pieces of music was consistent. It was something we could rely on every day of our lives.
As Mr. Rogers told Senator Pastore on May 1, 1969, Mister Rogers Neighborhood gave us way to deal with “the mad inside”.
Mr. Rogers is gone. Both in human form and on TV. Maybe one day he’ll be back on the air. I would certainly love that, wouldn’t you? Perhaps there will be a bigger call for this after Tom Hanks portrays him in “You Are My Friend.”
But I think when Fred Rogers fought so hard in front of the Senate back in 1969 for his simple little program, a mere few months before Armstrong walked on the moon, he knew that what he was doing was no less important than the bootprint Armstrong left forever etched in moon dust.
So maybe Mr. Rogers is not gone after all. Maybe Mr. Rogers is like that bootprint on the moon, etched forever in the mind of every child or adult who watched him carry on countless conversations with Mr. McFeely or Lady Elaine.
Maybe we are Fred Rogers. We are responsible for the people in our lives. We are capable of unconditionally loving every person we know and see. We may be the only positive influence a child may ever have in their entire life.
People often lash out when they are in pain. For a child, anger is often pain’s invisibility cloak.
I wonder. How many times did someone look Nikolas Cruz or Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold or Adam Lanza in the eye and say: “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are.”
Thank you for stopping in.