The resurgence of interest in Fred Rogers, which began last year with the 50th anniversary of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” along with the terrific documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” continues with the release of “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks as Rogers, last week.
While I prefer the documentary, the new film is still worth seeing.
It wasn’t until I saw the documentary that I realized how incredible a person Fred Rogers was, a man who was equal parts artist, psychologist and clergyman, who just so happened to have a children’s show on national television, someone who I needed to share with my students who never grew up with him but could learn essential life lessons about how to be a decent human being.
In order for students to understand life back when the show premiered in 1968, they needed to know how television was once a landscape of only seven channels on VHF, with the sole public television station on UHF the only place to watch commercial-free TV, where the show aired, and that more households had stay-at-home mothers.
As a way of introduction, I show them the opening to a typical show, asking them to analyze the camera work of the first five minutes: one continuous take that only zooms in or out on Mr. Rogers, while he intently looks into the camera, giving the viewers the sense of having a one-on-one conversation with an adult who cares about them.
After we examine the documentary and answer several questions about it, I have students reflect on key ideas that resonated with them.
Several students focus on scenes of emotional honesty such as Mr. Rogers singing “It’s You I Like” with Jeff Erlanger, the little boy in a wheelchair, or Daniel Striped Tiger, the puppet who told Lady Aberlin how he thought he was a mistake, or Francois Clemmons (Officer Clemmons) tearing up explaining how Fred was his surrogate father since his real father never expressed love for him.
Finally, emulating Mr. Rogers, I ask students to write about the one person who has helped them the most along the way in their lives for one minute.
I wasn’t as interested in knowing who the people were that my students chose to single out as much as give them the time to contemplate about it.
Rogers talked about the importance of quiet, giving people time to think and reflect. He practices this himself whenever an interviewer asks him a question, his initial instinct is to sit there quietly, thinking deeply about how best to phrase his response.
I ask my students why a show like “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” would never be put on television today, and the response is unanimous: children do not have attention spans to patiently watch a slow-paced show, especially with too many other high-energy options.
A few students commented on how they have seen parents give children a phone or other electronic device instead of interacting with them on a human level.
As part of my unit on decency, I share stories of helpers, the term Mr. Rogers used to describe those who do good in the world, of a star college football player eating lunch with an autistic sixth-grade boy at school, or of a man donating a kidney to a colleague at work who he barely knew.
This leads naturally to the decency project I have students work on for six months, an ungraded exploration of who they are as helpers.
Back in 1955, the wife-and-husband songwriting team of Jill Jackson-Miller and Sy Miller wrote the song “Let There be Peace on Earth” that still rings true today, especially the line, “and let it begin with me.” There is no finer way of a tribute to Mr. Rogers than living one’s life that way and being a helper.