HUGHES, ARKANSAS -- I awoke Thursday morning in a bad mood. A glance out the kitchen window confirmed that we would be beset with another "snow day"-- our third in a row. When I was a child, snow days meant mornings of sledding and afternoons of drinking Ovaltine in front of "The Smurfs." Fast forward fifteen years, and an icy, school-free Wednesday found me scraping mildew from between my shower tiles. Winter Wonderland had become Hell Frozen Over.
I clicked on my radio anticipating another winter weather advisory, but a calmer, friendlier message greeted me instead. "Children need limits," a familiar voice explained. "The child who can run into the street without warning is a child who will feel unloved." I thought of 10-year-old Amanda, sobbing in the hallway after I lost my temper with her (yet again) for rolling her eyes at me (yet again). "Im sorry I yelled at you, Amanda," I said, wiping her cheeks. "I get mad because I love you." This statement probably made no sense to Amanda--actually, it hardly seemed reasonable to me at the time. But listening to the voice on the radio--one which, by now, I recognized as the unmistakable warm and fuzzy voice of Mr. Rogers--it all felt right.
"How lucky," I thought, "to wake up to an interview with Mr. Rogers." Who couldnt use a little comforting from the best counselor in the "neighborhood"? Yet, the announcers voice next delivered a brief, solemn sentence: "Fred Rogers died last night at the age of 74."
Not possible. I switched off the radio, as if silencing the news would erase it. Mr. Rogers dead? Santa Claus never gets old or sick. The spirit of youth and kindness lives forever.
People who have never pulled on a sweater or fed a goldfish love Mr. Rogers and, as children, followed his every domestic move on "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood." People who know the unedited version of Khias "My Neck, My Back" by heart can still hum the tune of "Wont You Be My Neighbor?" Without any evidence to support my conclusion, I can say that the appeal of Mr. Rogers transcends age, gender, race and income.
My roommate Danielle and I argue over feminism, vegetarianism, and the artistic value of Titanic
. We both adore Mr. Rogers. Danielle would have me point out that she and Mr. Rogers share the same hometown (Pittsburgh), and her mother visited the hospital where Mr. Rogers died of stomach cancer. When I informed Danielle of Mr. Rogers death, she replied, "No way! He showed me the crayon factory. Mr. Rogers kicks ass."
How did an unassuming, gray-haired former preacher charm so many people? In an August 1999 article on the 30th anniversary of "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood," Salon.com columnist Joyce Millman described the PBS show "an oasis of peace and calm, familiarity and safety in a kid-unfriendly world." I would go further and call "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" a haven in a human-unfriendly world. In college, I bookmarked the "Neighborhood" web site and visited it more times than I should admit--every time I was belittled and overwhelmed by the pressures of GPA and my job on the college newspaper. "Ill never be a perfect student," Id tell myself. Then, Mr. Rogers words would flash on my computer screen: "If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet, how important you can be to people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person." Mr. Rogers assured me, "You are special," at a time I felt as valuable as a dime in the Dollar Store.
As a teacher, I wish I could do for my students what Mr. Rogers has done for me. The number-one problem among my 4th graders is not lack of reading ability or math comprehension--although I struggle with these issues every day--the real anathema is my students low self-esteem. "Whats something Miss Haines should know about you?" I asked on my beginning-of-the-year student survey. Answers? Bubbly, brown-eyed Andrea wrote, "I am stupid." Ashleigh hunched over her paper in the back of the classroom and scrawled, "BAD." The school year hadnt even started, and my children already saw themselves as academic losers. How do you begin to inspire greatness in kids who embrace failure?
Mr. Rogers never claimed to have all the answers. Perhaps the best thing about his message of self-acceptance was the way he presented it-- on-the-level, without a grown-ups condescending gushiness. One of my favorite Mr. Rogers tunes claims, "There are many ways to say I love you." He showed us that there are also many ways to say "Youre important." You can invite someone inside your imagination. You can introduce them to your mailman. You can just smile and say, "Im glad youre here." Sentimentality doesnt matter as much as sentiment. As Mr. Rogers suggested in the radio segment, sometimes a scolding is a hug in disguise.
Even when Mr. Rogers was alive, I couldnt thank him for welcoming me into his "television home" week after week. The best I can do is try to be a good teacher-hostess, snow or shine, groggy or riding on a Diet Coke high. I dont have the sneakers or sweater for the job, but I do have the desire to empower a pint-sized (or, in some cases, quarter-gallon sized) audience. Wont you be my neighbor?
(Jesse Corlew-Haines is a former resident of Memphis, now teaching in Hughes, Arkansas on behalf of
Teach for America.)