Like millions of other kids who grew up watching “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” on television, I loved Fred Rogers. I deliberately use the word “love” to describe my feelings for the kind gentleman who taught so many young people how to treat their fellow human beings because his was always a message about love and respect.
When I reflect on the negative and scary things going on in the world today, I can’t help asking, “What would Mister Rogers do?”
What would everyone’s favorite neighbor think about neo-Nazis waving swastika flags in the streets of America? How would he react to protesters vandalizing monuments to confederate soldiers and demanding their removal? What would he say to a president struggling to unite a politically and racially divided nation?
It is important to note that Fred Rogers was a pioneer in normalizing race relations on television. His creation of the character Officer Clemmons, a black police officer/neighbor, was a deliberate decision he made following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the riots surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Rogers felt that it was important to show children that neither blacks nor police officers were people to fear. A year later, on the first anniversary of King’s murder, Rogers and Officer Clemmons together soaked their white feet and black feet in a wading pool in Mister Rogers’ back yard. This was a clear signal to kids (and their parents) that racial segregation and police mistrust had no place in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or in the hearts of man.
Nearly fifty years later, people seem angrier and more mistrustful than ever. Rogers said, “It takes strength to acknowledge our anger, and sometimes more strength yet to curb the aggressive urges anger may bring and to channel them into nonviolent outlets… It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it.” While it is tempting to lash out at those whose opinions clash with our own, violence and anger do nothing to soften the hard edges of those who may disagree with us. Only love and compassion can do that.
Mister Rogers said, “(Love) is an active noun like ‘struggle.’ To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” That sounds extremely difficult (or perhaps impossible) to do when dealing with people who wave banners of hate in the faces of those they despise, but nevertheless, it is vitally important to the well-being of our great nation. Surely we can all agree that finding a way to coexist peacefully is a worthy endeavor.
I think one of the biggest problems facing not only our country but the world itself is our false belief that “other people” have less value or are less important than ourselves. Racial, religious, and class divisions exist because one person or group of people believe that they are superior to another. Mister Rogers addressed a way to remedy this toxic attitude. “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has—or ever will have—something inside that is unique to all time.”
When we see violence and hatred in the news and feelings of helplessness or anger start to creep into our hearts, we should all ask ourselves, “What would Mister Rogers do?” Mister Rogers said that when he was a child his heroes wore capes and had superpowers, but as he grew up, his heroes changed. “Anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me,” he said. So I submit to you that if you want to help make this world a better place, save your cape for Halloween and do something today to help a child. Don’t wait until tomorrow. You can be a hero to a kid right now.
Read a book to a child, buy a kid an ice cream cone and talk about whatever’s on her mind, or volunteer to coach youth sports. When Southern Boone students return to school in a couple weeks, there will be many opportunities to mentor kids, assist their teachers, and make a positive impact on young lives. Show kids, by your good example, how to treat others (even those who seem to be quite different from you).
As Mister Rogers said, “We live in a world in which we share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see a need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” Is there a nobler goal than to be Mister Rogers’ hero? Only one: to be a hero to a child. It’s easy. Just ask yourself, “WWMRD?”