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Who else could have led the revolution of neighborliness that transformed the lives of millions of children? It seems the least likely among us are always the ones who rise up to do the right thing that should have been obvious all along. I thought I knew this unlikely rebel, but it turns out the man in the cardigan was so much more than any parody.
Watching Won't You Be My Neighbor, the top-grossing biographical documentary ever made, was more than enlightening. Just as this biopic was one of the genuine surprises of 2018, one of Time Magazine's Top Ten Movies of the Year, the man, Fred Rogers, turned out to be the biggest surprise of all.
Yes, Mister Rogers was a puppeteer. He loved children and treated them with great respect. His manner was gentle and kind. Empathy was one of his greatest gifts. Young children adored him. We knew all of that, right? What more do we need to know?
Every television personality is born of context. It is the context I wanted to know. What made Mister Rogers the man that he became? Who was Mister Rogers the child? How is it that Fred Rogers was able to remember what it was like to be a child? How did that knowledge—that essence—inform his interactions with both young children and the child in each of us grown-ups?
Learning that Mister Rogers had a rich solitary life as a child was one key piece of that context. Hearing that he was bullied, called Fat Freddy by his peers, told me something vitally important about Mister Rogers' inner child. Knowing he had been a sickly youth who dealt with frequent bouts of asthma added to the picture.
Then there were the epiphanies that resulted from the discovery that Rogers was an ordained minister. Things were really beginning to make even more sense now. And those 200+ songs he wrote for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood? Surely his degree in Music Composition, and the fact that he began playing the piano at the age of five, had something to do with that. Music was in his soul.
There is so much more, but I will leave it to you to engage with Won't You Be My Neighbor and to have your own epiphanies. After all, isn't that what makes a movie memorable?
I very mindfully chose to spend time immersed in this documentary in preparation for going to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. They are two very different takes on Mister Rogers and the impacts of his humanity on others. Both films spoke to me, but in entirely distinctive ways.
One sure common element of the two explorations into the persona of Mister Rogers is this: You will feel Mister Rogers reach out to you. He will meet you where you are. He will appreciate the beauty of you.
Oh, how I wish Mister Rogers was my neighbor. I wonder how I might become the kind of neighbor he would be to me.
It occurs to me that what we need most in the world right now is more of Mister Rogers' brand of neighborliness. He, too, was living through tumultuous times when he created Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. The themes of his trailblazing show are more current than ever: embracing differences; treating others with kindness; loving others for exactly who they are; and not being afraid to talk about the things that matter.
I highly recommend both of these films and will be publishing a separate review for each. Stay tuned for my upcoming reflections on A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Coming soon to a blog near you.
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