I never liked Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when I was little. I think it’s because I learned to read so early that by the time I was old enough to watch the show, I’d already outgrown it.
In fact, while most people my age talk about how soothing he was, how good he made them feel about themselves, or how much he helped assuage their fears about this or that, my earliest and most persistent memory of Fred Rogers involves a roughly 4-year-old me becoming irrationally angry about the fact I could make a much better construction-paper fish than the weird, angular shape he cut out and tried to pass off as a fish for some project he was doing on the show. I have vivid memories of shouting to my mom with barely suppressed rage: “I can do a better job than that, and I’M ONLY FOUR! He’s a grown man, getting paid for this, and that’s the best he can do?”
Mom gently explained that other little kids weren’t as coordinated as I was, and Mr. Rogers was screwing up his paper fish on purpose to make them feel better about their own work.
I was apoplectic.
“He’s a grownup, and he’s wasting paper ON PURPOSE?!!!?”
Preschoolers, as you may have surmised, possess neither a particularly nuanced worldview nor a great appreciation for the value of differentiated instruction.
I didn’t have much respect for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1979, but 37 years later, I think I’m ready to move there.
Nobody in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood is afraid of immigrants. Nobody in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood is making fun of people with disabilities. Nobody in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood is fat-shaming anybody or gossiping about anybody else’s sex life. And there jolly well isn’t any wall keeping anybody out of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, because everybody there understands that other people are SPECIAL JUST THE WAY THEY ARE.
A couple of weeks ago, a Twitter conversation prompted me to wonder: How much better off would we all be if we spent more time listening to Mr. Rogers and less time listening to people who prey on our insecurities and encourage our worst instincts? I decided an experiment was in order, so for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching old episodes of the show on YouTube and paying attention to the message.
I was too old for Mr. Rogers when I was little. But in my 40s, I’ve come to the conclusion that a daily trip to that peaceful, accepting neighborhood might be just what I need as I search for an antidote to the anger, frustration, and disappointment I battle every time someone tries to defend a sexist dogwhistle, a xenophobic policy proposal, or any of the other myriad forms of bigotry that have shown themselves during this election cycle.
Won’t you be my neighbor?