Fred Rogers was in a class all his own. While the rest of children’s entertainment—and the world—gradually either whipped itself up into a frenzy of electric hipness and sophisticated media consumption or coagulated into a kind of hippie-dippy debauch of “everything’s all right” infantilism, Mister Rogers and the denizens of his neighborhood stayed their course of tender yet matter-of-fact lessons on the wherefores and whys of Life as we know it. Unconditional love is like that. Can we ever be forgiven for taking him for granted or, worse yet, questioning his unfathomable goodness?
I was born in 1979, and it appears to me that there exists a discernable schism between my peers and the preceding generations of viewers who frequented Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Whereas the now-adults who grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s tend to take Mister Rogers at face value and are thankful for his (relatively) secular morality, we children of the early-to-mid 1980s can be a touch conflicted in our responses to him. “He’s creepy!” some contend. With that pronouncement usually comes a flicker of self-doubt or confusion, as if they realize it’s somehow sacrilegious to make that claim yet can’t quite believe all that hi-de-ho cheerfulness isn’t a ruse. Ah yes, we are truly the products of our times, those times when Reagan-era admonishments to stop-drop-n-roll, just say no, and resist the charms of strangers with candy breakdanced in our heads to the extent that simplicity could no longer be comprehended as simplicity; it had to be simplicity with a hidden agenda.
Of course not everyone suspected Mister Rogers of being somehow sinister (I, for one, long to stand up and be counted as one who loved him from the beginning). But the mere fact that those folks exist at all is telling. While paranoid perversities polluted the minds of those who thought they knew better than to be fooled by this salt-and-peppery old man in a zip-up cardigan and slip-on shoes, there is no doubt in my mind that some part of Mister Rogers sang just a bit more heartily each week in the interest of reminding these already jaded little cynics that, regardless of their notions to the contrary, yes, it’s still “a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” In fact, that was pretty much his whole m.o.
Even those of us who watched him with wide-eyed affection as children invariably went through the early adolescent phase where it was kewl to do a stupid little Mister Rogers pantomime to the vast amusement of our friends and siblings: zip and unzip a series of light jackets, unlace your shoes and throw them over your shoulder (so much the better if they landed somewhere with a devil-may-care thud), all the while overly lustily singing the theme song with a final yelp of “hi, neighbor!” to punctuate the end of the routine. Why was this funny to us? Why take pot-shots at one of the few people in our lives who never had a cross word for us, who was a bedrock of dependability, who provided a safe haven in the midst of confusion and chaos? Alas, there’s more than one definition of the phrase “growing pains”.
Really, what child ever truly understood what was going on in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? What child ever praised it for being simple and steady and gentle and safe? What child ever admired the wholesome values or the snail’s-pace editing or the decidedly un-trendy earnestness in dealing with topics ranging from loneliness to divorce? Kids watched Mister Rogers because he was there, but because he was there, we became the unwitting receptacles for the seeds of a brand of decency that we wouldn’t learn to appreciate or even understand until much, much later.
Which is why the sorrow of his death hits us so much harder than any of us expected. Unlike the passing of a great musician or actor or director whom we mourn because we’ll never get anything new out of him or her, we know that Mister Rogers never gave us anything “new” in the first place and we were never properly grateful to him for it. Yes, most of us eventually grew out of our mistrust and/or our predilection for simplistic mockery to the point where we eventually recognized what made Mister Rogers so incredibly special, but somehow that wasn’t enough. We want him to know that we’re sorry for having doubted him even for a moment. We want to tell him that we do want to be his neighbor. We want to thank him for staying in the same place - like those with a special relationship to the Truth so often do—while we moved on ahead.
Can we convince ourselves that he intuitively knew all these things before the thoughts had even formed in our hearts and heads? It shouldn’t be too hard when, the next time we flip past PBS, we hear him greeting us - as if from beyond the grave - with “it’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive . . .”