Recently I came across a piece written some time ago about Fred Rogers. My conclusion: more people in the world should be like Fred Rogers, because seriously the world would be a much, much better place. I advice everyone to read the piece, which was written by Tom Junod for Pittsburgh In Words.
Here’s an excerpt:
Once upon a time, a little boy with a big sword went into battle against Mister Rogers. Or maybe, if the truth be told, Mister Rogers went into battle against a little boy with a big sword, for Mister Rogers didn’t like the big sword. It was one of those swords that really isn’t a sword at all; it was a big plastic contraption with lights and sound effects, and it was the kind of sword used in defense of the universe by the heroes of the television shows that the little boy liked to watch. The little boy with the big sword did not watch Mister Rogers. In fact, the little boy with the big sword didn’t know who Mister Rogers was, and so when Mister Rogers knelt down in front of him, the little boy with the big sword looked past him and through him, and when Mister Rogers said, “Oh, my, that’s a big sword you have,” the boy didn’t answer, and finally his mother got embarrassed and said, “Oh, honey, c’mon, that’s Mister Rogers,” and felt his head for fever. Of course, she knew who Mister Rogers was, because she had grown up with him, and she knew that he was good for her son, and so now, with her little boy zombie-eyed under his blond bangs, she apologized, saying to Mister Rogers that she knew he was in a rush and that she knew he was here in Penn Station taping his program and that her son usually wasn’t like this, he was probably just tired. … Except that Mister Rogers wasn’t going anywhere. Yes, sure, he was taping, and right there, in Penn Station in New York City, were rings of other children wiggling in wait for him, but right now his patient gray eyes were fixed on the little boy with the big sword, and so he stayed there, on one knee, until the little boy’s eyes finally focused on Mister Rogers, and he said, “It’s not a sword; it’s a death ray.” A death ray! Oh, honey, Mommy knew you could do it … And so now, encouraged, Mommy said, “Do you want to give Mister Rogers a hug, honey?” But the boy was shaking his head no, and Mister Rogers was sneaking his face past the big sword and the armor of the little boy’s eyes and whispering something in his ear—something that, while not changing his mind about the hug, made the little boy look at Mister Rogers in a new way, with the eyes of a child at last, and nod his head yes.
We were heading back to his apartment in a taxi when I asked him what he had said.
“Oh, I just knew that whenever you see a little boy carrying something like that, it means that he wants to show people that he’s strong on the outside.
“I just wanted to let him know that he was strong on the inside, too.
“And so that’s what I told him.
“I said, ‘Do you know that you’re strong on the inside, too?'”
“Maybe it was something he needed to hear.”
He was barely more than a boy himself when he learned what he would be fighting for, and fighting against, for the rest of his life. He was in college. He was a music major at a small school in Florida and planning to go to seminary upon graduation. His name was Fred Rogers. He came home to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, once upon a time, and his parents, because they were wealthy, had bought something new for the corner room of their big redbrick house. It was a television. Fred turned it on, and as he says now, with plaintive distaste, “there were people throwing pies at one another.” He was the soft son of overprotective parents, but he believed, right then, that he was strong enough to enter into battle with that–that machine, that medium–and to wrestle with it until it yielded to him, until the ground touched by its blue shadow became hallowed and this thing called television came to be used “for the broadcasting of grace through the land.” It would not be easy, no–for in order to win such a battle, he would have to forbid himself the privilege of stopping, and whatever he did right he would have to repeat, as though he were already living in eternity. And so it was that the puppets he employed on The Children’s Corner would be the puppets he employed forty-four years later, and so it was that once he took off his jacket and his shoes … well, he was Mister Rogers for good. And even now, when he is producing only three weeks’ worth of new programs a year, he still winds up agonizing–agonizing–about whether to announce his theme as “Little and Big” or “Big and Little” and still makes only two edits per televised minute, because he doesn’t want his message to be determined by the cuts and splices in a piece of tape–to become, despite all his fierce coherence, “a message of fragmentation.”
He is losing, of course. The revolution he started–a half hour a day, five days a week–it wasn’t enough, it didn’t spread, and so, forced to fight his battles alone, Mister Rogers is losing, as we all are losing. He is losing to it, to our twenty-four-hour-a-day pie fight, to the dizzying cut and the disorienting edit, to the message of fragmentation, to the flicker and pulse and shudder and strobe, to the constant, hivey drone of the electroculture … and yet still he fights, deathly afraid that the medium he chose is consuming the very things he tried to protect: childhood and silence. Yes, at seventy years old and 143 pounds, Mister Rogers still fights, and indeed, early this year, when television handed him its highest honor, he responded by telling television–gently, of course–to just shut up for once, and television listened. He had already won his third Daytime Emmy, and now he went onstage to accept Emmy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and there, in front of all the soap-opera stars and talk-show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are … Ten seconds of silence.” And then he lifted his wrist, and looked at the audience, and looked at his watch, and said softly, “I’ll watch the time,” and there was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked … and so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds … and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier, and Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said, “May God be with you” to all his vanquished children.