By Michael Long
A friend of mine who grew up in Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood — I mean that literally, as in down the street from him in Pittsburgh — can’t tell me enough good things about him. “He is the basis for everything I know as an adult,” she says, with neither irony nor embarrassment. That’s quite a testimony — even to be slathered on now, at his retirement — and she’s not alone in making it.
Yet Mister Rogers — who taped his last episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at the age of 73 last week — strikes us as odd. I don’t think it’s because of the accoutrements, though that’s what we think of first: the cardigans, the soft voice, the guileless, Andy Kaufman grin. Mister Rogers is a cultural artifact so bizarre that we have to think about him pretty hard to recognize what makes him inspire such devotion — and what simultaneously makes him so easy to mock, so oatmeal-bland to adults… and so inspiring to children, so much so that some adults carry around his lessons for the rest of their lives.
Here is the secret of Mister Rogers: He says exactly what he means and exactly what is true, and he says it for the consumption of a single, simple audience: children. He does so without regard to adult opinion of how old-fashioned his simplicity makes him appear. He is so committed to kids that he spends no time adjusting his performance to affect his profile in the popular culture of adults. He is, therefore, out of our time. Jarringly so.
Language and attitude are now all about irony. We have arrived at a point that in every conversation, we make at least some of our points by saying the opposite of what we wish to communicate. We are not the TV generation or even the Internet generation. We are the sarcastic generation.
And Fred Rogers is not sarcastic. He needs no posturing, no sly winks to the grownups that he knows how silly he must look. If you’re over the age of ten, he doesn’t really care what you think of him. And that’s real power.
Fred Rogers is a supremely confident man. If he were anything less, he wouldn’t be able to leave himself open as being so desperately un-hip. And he puts that strength to good use: He reaches out to children to communicate to them the things that they need to know. His confidence allows him to speak in a simple way they’ll understand, and to come back and do that day after day. He stoops to conquer, in a way; yet he never stoops at all.
Fred Rogers hits the issues that are on kids’ minds, from brain busters such as divorce to self-worth, security, and sleeping in the dark. He is a steadfast adult presence in what must surely seem to children to be a big, churning world that is utterly beyond their control. This is as decent a calling as a man might find. He puts to bed the issues that keep little kids awake at night. He fosters the internal peace that we all must acquire, because that peace, in time, becomes the replacement for the security blanket, the nightlight, the teddy bear.
Sincerity is, anymore, a form of weakness, and gentility is an invitation to be pushed around. Yet sincerity and gentility are really strengths, and we forget that as children, we pass through a time when it is indispensable that we know those qualities in their pure state; they are the foundations of a grown-up mind. Little kids need such an example, such a place to go — and Mister Rogers Neighborhood is a good and rare one of them.
Grownups need such a place, too, though we rarely admit it. We are too smart to take our peace that way. Too smart. Or something.