In case you missed it, Saturday, March 20 would have been Mister Rogers’ 93rd birthday. This birthday got me thinking about all the ways we as a society have been influenced by his legacy over the past few decades. Sadly, it seems we have fully embraced the idea of Mister Rogers without embracing the actual practices of Mister Rogers. What do I mean by that?
Even as we celebrate the neighborhood, we have lost the simple art of neighboring; showing kindness just because it is the right thing to do. In an angry world, we celebrate Mister Rogers as a man of peace while fostering our own anger. As our ‘neighborhood’ has moved from the front porch to the Twitterverse or Facebookland, many of us are losing the basic ideas of how to be a good neighbor.
I am just as guilty of it as anyone else. I can easily spend more time debating some random person online than talking to the guy down the street. It is far too simple to pull into the garage, shut the door behind me, and never interact. I also recall that the TV home of Mister Rogers did not have a garage, and maybe there is something to that. Human interaction tends to drive us toward being a good neighbor, and this is a biblical command from Jesus, as he instructed us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Mister Rogers, a guy who was an ordained pastor with a local, low-budget children’s show, set a national standard for that kind of thing, and it continues to inspire us.
Once a Teacher…
I truly learned this art of neighboring in the classroom. They say that once you are a teacher you are always a teacher, and my time as a teacher helped to cement these behaviors into my personality. I vividly remember when students would walk into my classroom on the first day of school. Once the bell rang, I did what most teachers do; I introduced myself and took attendance. Taking attendance in my classroom took a while because I figured out that this mundane task was really a hidden opportunity to connect. Just like Mister Rogers looked into the camera and greeted us every time he started his show, I learned it was important to make eye contact with every student as I called their name, and then repeat their name back to them with a salutation:
“Good morning John. I’m glad you are in my class.”
“Hello Jane. It’s nice to meet you.”
And so on…
That little practice set a strong tone. When a student realizes a teacher is making an effort to acknowledge that they are an actual person, it goes a long way. This little practice applies outside of the classroom as well. Once attendance was finished, I continued doing very ‘Mister Rogers’ kinds of things. I explained that my goal for the year was for each of them to succeed: not just to pass the course, not just to ‘do the work,’ but to genuinely enjoy being a part of it.
I read aloud from “I Can Read with My Eyes Shut” by Dr. Seuss. Every year, each student was fully engaged as I turned the pages. Did I mention that I taught 12th grade English? Most of these kids had a college and/or career already picked out. Most of them would vote in the next election. Some of them had already served time in prison and some were already parents. Some were hurt and some were angry. Yet here they were digging a picture book.
It was all a very Mister Rogers kind of thing. How many of us would love to step back from all the adulting and just have someone read us a picture book? Silly? Yes, it is. But there is not a reason we can’t be astute intellectuals who still remember what it is like to be a kid. After all, Jesus tells us that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Mister Rogers understood this concept.
Being a Mister Rogers in our Angry Generation
Outside of my immediate family, Mister Rogers was among the first adult male role models that I had, and I suspect that this is the case for many people my age. As we GenXers find ourselves deep in middle-age adulthood, we seem to be collectively looking backward, seeking out the people and things that were good and kind and meaningful to us early on and we hope to draw something good from them. As we sift through those people and things of the past, we all appear to be finding Mister Rogers.
What we are rediscovering in Mister Rogers is a grownup who displayed the love and compassion of Christ, often without even mentioning the name. There is no reason why any of us can’t do the same thing in any environment, no matter how hostile. Mister Rogers is unique in that he showed us humility. He showed us imagination. He smiled at us every time he walked in the door. He sat on the floor and played with puppets and made funny voices. He was an adult who seemed to remember what was like to be a kid. He was approachable. He interacted with everyone around the neighborhood in exactly the same way, whether kids or adults.
And yet…Mister Rogers was no pushover: he still asked us to refer to him not as Fred, but as Mister Rogers. He made a point of dressing down to sneakers and a sweater, yet he also made a point of letting us know he walked in with dress shoes and a suit jacket. The tie stayed on, because he was, after all, an adult. I’ve realized that even as our neighbor Mister Rogers was displaying kindness and playing make-believe, he was earning our respect. I also realized years later how every other adult on the show had great respect for this kind and gentle man. They looked to him not as a weak person, but as a meek person. He was intelligent, talented, and charismatic, yet he chose to interact with others in humility and kindness. He was giving us an example of Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves”.
I am thankful that my generation had Mister Rogers, and I would venture to say that it is this faith-inspired level of kindness coupled with this level of respect that continues to bring comfort and inspiration to a generation still screaming out for healthy role models. My generation now has an opportunity to be Mister Rogers to a generation that doesn’t seem to have their own Mister Rogers. It turns out that Mister Rogers was really teaching us a very biblical lesson– being respectable, kind, honest, and trustworthy.
In an angry world, this is not an easy thing to do. It’s actually pretty tough. Yet if we honestly want to change the world, it has to start within our own sphere of influence in our own neighborhood. In our plugged-in, overstressed cancel culture, this is my prayer for myself and others in the faith: that we would devote ourselves to Christ, becoming the role model young people so desperately need. Mister Rogers was not special beyond the fact that he pointed us towards the kindness of Christ, and this is a model we can all easily follow. The next generation needs to see that from us, and so does your neighbor.
Photo credit: Unsplash.com/@mathyaskurmann