“Cool water on a hot summer day”: Learning Life’s Lesson with Mr. Rogers, the Quiet Revolutionary


David Seelow, PhD©

“Love – is at the root of all learning…all parenting…all relationships… Love – or the lack of it.” – Mr. Rogers

            Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Mending Wall,” poses a question currently consuming American political discourse, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out/And to whom I was like to give offense.” The president has asked that question and answered in favor of walling out Mexicans and other Latin Americans coming north. He and other supporters of the proposed wall have offended many both inside and outside the country. A wall is more than a boundary. It marks a divide that cannot be crossed without permission or great risk. On the other side, those walled in, I suppose are meant to be true members of the elect, ‘real Americans’ or ‘communist’ east Germans in the case of that now demolished wall. Lack of a wall might result in contamination of the elect, the privileged.  This aspect of wall building reminds me of gated communities, neighborhoods for the wealthy who don’t want to be disturbed by less the privileged. These “communities” are the exact opposite of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

            In the very first episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (Feb. 19, 1968), the puppet King Friday XIII builds a wall. He wants to wall out those who advocate for change. The king puts restrictions on make believe! Fortunately, a solution comes in Episode 5 (Feb. 23, 1968) when Lady Aberlin floats some balloons with labels such as “love” over the castle walls and the king decides, upon reading the missives, to take the wall down. Even in “The Land of Make Believe,” walls have no place.

            Mr. Rogers neighborhood was a true democracy, a republic of tolerance and inclusivity that the recent documentary “Welcome to My Neighborhood,” (2018) by Morgan Neville so beautifully maps out. Neighborhoods seem to me increasingly rare. True neighborhoods are liked extended families. They are open, integrated and inhabited by people in reciprocal relationships. Extended families not by blood, but by choice and affection. A brotherhood, a sisterhood, a ‘hood. “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” ran half an hour on Public Broadcasting Systems out of WQED in Pittsburgh from 1968 to 2001. An astounding 31 years of the most basic, unadorned non-Hollywood television. The begin and end dates so richly symbolic. 1968 the year of tremendous cultural upheaval and tragic assassinations (which the show addressed in a special edition) and 2001, the year of the catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Towers. Between these historic markers, Mr. Rogers’ children show quietly addressed children as unique and valuable. He used television as a pulpit, and his large television audience became his congregation. Indeed, Mr. Rogers felt television had the potential to build a national community. His support before Congress secured funding for the new-found Pubic Broadcasting System (signed into existence by LBJ) at a time when President Nixon sought to dismantle it. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood had a Christian foundation, but preached the message of most world religions, a message of hope and believe in the dignity of humans and the power of faith in a higher power.

            An accomplished pianist, Mr. Rogers communicated through song. The shows opening song memorable for its inclusive message:

                        “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

                          A beautiful day for a neighbor,

                          Would you be mine?

                          Could you be mine?”

Could any message be more antithetical to walls, and division? It takes a deep faith to believe every day is special, but that faith has transformative power. Fred Rogers revolutionary message follows very much his spiritual leader, a message and a practice of radical kindness.

            Returning to Frost’s poem for a moment, when the neighbor declares to the speaker, “Good fences make good neighbors,” the line reads deeply ironic. Fences don’t make neighbors at all and the poem’s two characters meet only once a year to mend a wall that keeps them apart, “And on a day we meet to walk the line/And set the wall between us once again./We keep the wall between us as we go.”; however, unnatural and pointless that wall might be.

            Where there are walls there are not neighbors. In his interpretation of the commandments Jesus puts “love thy neighbor as thyself” second only to “love thy God” (Mathew 22: 37-39). Walls generally preclude the ability to love one’s neighbor. Mr. Roger’s neighborhood is open and his question, “Won’t you be my neighbor” is an open invitation to fellowship or as Mr. Rogers’ explained, “an invitation to be close.”   Jesus’s message echoes the memorable verses from Leviticus 19.  In this verse on loving one’s neighbor there is a telling command, “Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.” Again, the message severely contradicts the current message about some “alien invasion” that threatens American security.

            Mr. Rogers had his Nay Sayers and the film gives this criticism space, undeserved space. The misrepresentation of Mr. Rogers’ messages as promoting narcissism and entitlement to spoiled kids is ludicrous. Nothing could be further from what he taught. Mr. Rogers stressed every child was valuable not because of what he or she owned or achieved. No, trophies for every kid had nothing to do with Mr. Rogers spiritual message that “Everyone is valuable just the way they are,” he effectively silences these Nay Sayers. His message proclaims human dignity. Kids are valuable by nature. It is an inherent worth not an achieved worth. When Mr. Rogers defines the greatest evil as “making someone feel less than they are,” he answers these critics who wants us to think kids are not special. Mr. Rogers respect for kids never wavered. He never talked down to them. He did not sugar coat the truth. He spoke and acted with an authenticity we so seldom see today.

            A perfect example of what I mean, would be the incredible episode (May 6, 1987) where Mr. Rogers speaking through his alter ego puppet Daniel Striped Tiger, asks Lady Aberlin “I was wondering if I was a mistake?… I am not like anyone else I know.” I suspect most kids wonder that question, but seldom ask it. To address this existential inquiry with children demands courage, and Daniel Tiger’s duet with Lady Aberlin express the best answer I could imagine, “I think you are fine just as you are… You’re not fake, you’re no mistake. You are my friend.” The scene ends with a gentle kiss and complete her acceptance of a tame Tiger because not all Tigers need to be ferocious and wild.

            In a film full of small epiphanies, I select three as testimony to the transformative power of television and the transcendent vision Mr. Rogers exemplified. In the special edition show broadcast on “Assassination” which aired June 7, 1968, Mr. Rogers used balloons in a way that initially mystified me. Lady Aberlin blew up a balloon and then the air was let out. Huh? Yet, as I watched the heart-breaking historical footage of the train carrying Robert F. Kennedy’s body across the country and Americans of all ages, and races and ethnicities lining both sides of the track to say farewell, I got it. I remember the day I heard about RFK’s assassination clear as yesterday. It took my wind away. Like a sudden punch to the stomach that tragic news really was like letting the air out of a balloon. The national balloon of hope had been popped by some hater. We lost an inspiration, a charismatic young leader full of promise and were left with the election of Richard M. Nixon, and more war, more strife, more animosity. Only a few months earlier Reverend King had been assassinated. In some ways we have never recovered from that year’s tragedies.

            In a related show, which aired May 9, 1969, Mr. Rogers is shown cooling his feet in a kiddie pool. Officer Clemmons appears and Mr. Rogers invites him to cool his feet on a hot summer day, so he does. A black policeman played by a gay African American actor Francois Scarborough Clemmons wading in a children’s pool next to a white man in 1969.1 Rather remarkable in many ways. To show that scene on national television in 1969 as race riots raged across America, required a courage and commitment to racial equality and social justice.  Mr. Rogers wanted to communicate that message to children in a way they could relate to before the corrosive prejudice of adults set in. 2 When the film cuts to an archival news account of a hotel manager pouring chemicals into a pool to drive ‘negro’ kids out of the pool reserved for white kids, we realize the radicalness of Mr. Rogers’ scene with Officer Clemmons.

            The documentary’s final scene is one of the most powerful I have experienced in five decades of movie going. Mr. Rogers is shown giving his final commencement address. His words fade into a moment common to his commencement addresses where Mr. Rogers asks his audience to take a minute in silence and think of those who have helped them get to where they are. The words are worth repeating:

            From the time you were little you had people who smiled you into smiling, talked you     into talking, sang you into singing, loved you into loving. Think about someone who has           helped you along the way for one minute. (The camera pans across faces of those who          have appeared in the film as they take this moment of silence to think and give thanks)Take some time to think of those extra special people, some people may be right    here, some may be far away, some may be in heaven, but where ever they are you             know deep down they wanted what was best for you. They have always cared for you     beyond measure and have encouraged you to be true. To be the best that is in you.

The film end with a closeup of his wife Joanne and her final words “Thank You.”

            We should be grateful for Morgan Neville’s film and for Fred Rogers’ life work. In a world dripping with cynicism, bursting with indulgence, people rushing, and shouting, sutured to technology, the message of compassion, protection, and empathy deserves attention, perhaps best offered in silence. It seems happiness, and Mr. Rogers exhibited happiness and optimism each day he spoke with children, requires gratitude- as a darker thinker Martin Heidegger argued late in life- thinking through thanks-giving, brings us to gratitude for Being.3 Just being alive.

***

            I started this blog with a great American poet Robert Frost and so I will end with another Walt Whitman. If Frost’s poem describes the divisiveness walls bring, Whitman’s poems knock these walls down. Whitman is a poet of the open road, of inclusiveness. When Whitman sings of himself in the great “Song of Myself” he sings of all American. “I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  He is one with them. Whitman invented a poetic technique of inventory or catalog to record and celebrate all he encountered and embraced. As I think for a minute or more really- of those who have helped me be who I am over the years I use a catalog to record a number of those people here. It is not inclusive, but a start in acknowledging those I have benefited from knowing. I recommend everyone take a moment and do the same- whether private or public- record, and pay tribute to those who helped you along the way of life. I begin with family and move to mentors/ colleagues, then friends (they all over lap considerably). Pets are included- they give much as well. Again, this is a list that came to mind in the moment, I watched the film’s final credits. There is no hierarchy. It is a wall, but the kind of wall Whitman would praise- not the wall proposed for the southern border.  This wall of names reads more like the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C. or the Ground Zero Memorial in NYC. Below are the names of those who matter to me. Do the same as you build your wall of thanks.

Donald R. Seelow,  Art and Ida (Noni and Popi)  Seelow (RIP), Daniel Seelow, Jon Seelow, Uncle Bill and Aunt Emma (RIP), Uncle Bob and Aunt Grace Faulknor (RIP), Uncle Dormer and Aunt Bev Faulknor (RIP), Cousin Harry and Andrea Faulknor, John V. Fernandez M.D. (RIP), Dot Hutchinson-Seelow (RIP), Uncle Chuck and Aunt Helen Shafer (RIP), Uncle Bob and Aunt Gloria Bleiyl (RIP); Andy ( my boxer and guardian baby sitter -RIP), Amy (beloved Irish setter, RIP), Coach Bill Ward (RIP), Charlene Staltare; Professors David V. Erdman (RIP), Jack Ludwig (RIP), Tom Flanagan (RIP), E. Ann Kaplan, Harvey Gross (RIP), Jonathan Levy, David B. Allison, Jan Kott (RIP), Joan Frye, Hugh J. Silverman (RIP), Alan Nadal, Dean John Harrington, Margaret Mead (RIP), Edward Tayler, Edward W. Said (RIP), Quentin Anderson (RIP), and Tvestan Todorov; Frieda Weiss, Marlena Cvetkovic (RIP), Harold Novak, Ben Goldberg, Reverend George Busler (RIP), Meg Meehan, Darren Walsh, President John Ebersole (RIP), William “G” Harris, Ph.D., Don Dea, Larry Yakabowski (ATC tennis pro), Raj T.,  Jim Llana, Ph.D., Kate Velsor, Ed.D., Betty Friedman (RIP), Maxine Kline, Gail Braverman, Veronica McDermott, Ph.D., Stella Cosimano (RIP), Dana Hurd, Rosemary Marcincuk (RIP), Anslem Parlatore, M.D., President Scott Dalrymple, Usha Palinaswamy, Ph.D., Rukmini Potdar, Ph.D., Claire Siskin, Holly Glenzer, Harold Brightman, Ph.D., Patricia Ryan, John Prusch, Ph.D., Mike Verro, Ph.D., Sharon Sloane, Lee Sheldon, Dave McCool, Bert Snow, Elaine Bertozzi, Ph.D., Clark Aldrich, Kim Velez, Elaine Dunn, Leslie Wadler, Mary Ann Cote, Janet Walsh, Laurie Wicksman, Rhonda Stoloff, Dee Dee Brower, Carol Brower, Sappho, Sapphire and Sara (my 3 lovely cats, RIP), Andy Levy, Ph.D., Susan “Lola” Palitiz, Reverend Gordan Letizia, Frank Seifert, M.D. (my heart surgeon), Annette Mahoney, Diana Su, M.D., Denis Manor, M.D., Sativa Bigelow, Randy S. Davis, Dennis M. Maroney, Edward F. Maroney, Olly (my rescue poodle, RIP), Pokey (mom’s toy poodle, RIP), Beth Tedford, Roderick (my beloved pug), and most assuredly, Doris Helen Faulknor Seelow Fernandez- my dear mother (RIP).

Notes 

1. An interview with Officer Clemmons aka Francois Clemmons in Vanity Fair provides much background and fascinating insight about their relationship.  “Mister Rogers’s Gay Black Friend Francois Clemmons Wears Tiaras Now,” conducted  by Chris Azzopondi, June 27, 2018, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/06/mister-rogers-neighborhood-wont-you-be-my-neighbor-francois-clemmons-officer-clemmons-fred-rogers.

2. Journalist Tom Junod appears in the film. He talks about the sad irony of Mr. Roger’s funeral where people protested Mr. Rogers failure to condemn homosexuality. As Junod comments, “They were intolerant of his tolerance.” The fact hateful parents had innocent kids holding up hateful signs demonstrates just how much adults can corrupt childhood. That Mr. Rogers struggled wit Officer Clemmons gay indentity only humanizes him.  In the pre-Stonewall era, for a heterosexual public figure to embrace homosexuality would be quite extraordinary and even Mr. Rogers was not quite there, but as interviews with Mr. Clemmons show, he was only his way, much faster than most of us. Junod’s Esquire profileof Mr. Rogers referenced below is a well worth reading for its insight about Mr. Roger’s private and public.

3. Dr. Robert Emmons, a leader in positive psychology, has conducted much research on the power of gratitude. As I struggle with cynicism in my later years, working on gratitude has become increasingly important. I highly recommend his work such as Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Mariner Books, reprint edition, 2008). German philosopher Martin Heiddeger’s work is incredibly dense and demands much from a reader (a page a day kind of reading) but making your way through his phenomenal late lecture/essay “Was heißt Denken?” translated as “What is Called Thinking” pays substantial dividends. In addition to a brilliant critique of scientific thought and the limits of technology, he argues that the very nature of thinking is a thanks-giving. Philosophy folds into theology and thought becomes devotional. To think is to give thanks. Gratitude grounds our Being.

Works Cited

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall,” from North of Boston, 1914, retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall, Public Domain.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Film). Morgan Neville, Focus Features, 2018.

Walt Whitman. “Song of Myself,” from Leavers of Grass, 1855-1891. Tom Junod, “Can You say …Hero?” Esquire, November 1998, reprinted April 6, 2017.

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