In what was a surprise to me, the cinematic highlight of my summer was viewing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”—a biographical film about Fred Rogers, the revered host of the long-running public television show Mister Rogers Neighborhood.
Since I was born too soon to be a childhood viewer of the show (think Howdy Doody instead), the film provided me an introduction to the show and to the person who created it. I knew more about Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood, the satirical take-off created by Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live. Probably because of that admittedly funny but certainly misleading effort by Mr. Murphy, I did not expect much of the film.
The film proved to be one of the most moving I have ever seen, particularly so since I have spent years in school settings surrounded by school children close to my heart. Mister Rogers is one of the most effective teachers I have ever had an opportunity to observe and appreciate. He moved me to tears several times during the film.
The intentional low production value of the show was not only charming; it was also consistent with Mister Rogers’ belief in simply profound core values. The power of those values did not require fancy visual and technological enhancements.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is not a nostalgic piece of hagiography. Mister Rogers is certainly depicted lovingly but also very honestly. The film makes clear that Mister Rogers was not only keenly attuned to the feelings and vulnerabilities of children; he was acutely aware of his own humanity and his own weaknesses. This awareness clearly contributed to the effectiveness of his teaching and connection with young people. Similarly, this combination enabled him to help children better understand troubling and tragic events in our society without terrifying them.
While the gentle humor of Mister Rogers was a key to his effectiveness, I think that the most significant factor in his success was that he took children seriously. He understood the importance of social-emotional learning before that term became widely known.
As another school year begins, I recommend a visit to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to inspire educators and parents.
Until next time,