‘I like you just the way you are:’ How Mr. Rogers Brought Me Back to Life
By Heather M Jones
Photo from CBC Still Photo Collection/Robert Ragsdale
Mar 20, 2018
I didn’t appreciate Mr. Rogers as a child. I watched his show faithfully, as most children in the early '80s did, but I admit it was mostly because it aired during weekday mornings when it was still socially acceptable for daycare providers to put the TV on. It didn’t quite captivate me the way Sesame Street did with its colourful characters, or the way Mr. Dressup did with his natural charisma. I watched Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood, but I didn’t especially want to be his neighbour.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I began to appreciate the quiet brilliance of Fred Rogers. Killing time between university classes, I browsed a pop-up book sale in the student union. Pure curiosity lead me to thumb through a book with an interesting looking cover: Dear Mr. Rogers, Does it Ever Rain in your Neighbourhood?: Letters to Mr. Rogers.
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I read a few pages. Then I read a few more. Then I bought the book. I was taken aback by the gentle kindness he showed to these children, his ability to relate to them on their level and the way he would give them answers to tough questions by neither overwhelming nor placating them.
In my dorm room, I pored over his words. I was 20 then, well past the age of sending letters to Mr. Rogers, but not yet a fully realized adult. And Mr. Rogers spoke to the part of me that wasn’t quite ready to let go of my childhood. Mr. Rogers taught me at 20 what I wish I had listened to when I was six: it’s OK to be scared sometimes and it’s OK to feel vulnerable. In his words: “Look for the helpers.”
I was taken aback by the gentle kindness he showed to these children, his ability to relate to them on their level and the way he would give them answers to tough questions by neither overwhelming nor placating them.
Realizing how wrong I had been about the man I had once assumed to be dull, I sought out information about Fred Rogers the person, not just Mr. Rogers the character. He was mild and mighty. Soft-spoken and outspoken. A delightful enigma of a man.
He neither smoked nor drank, and he “[didn’t] want to eat anything with a mother,” none of which was surprising to learn about the man I knew from television. By all accounts, his on-screen persona was very like the man off-screen. The way he related to children was also identical. During a time when children were often dismissed, Fred Rogers addressed them as whole persons with valid feelings and important ideas.
And he advocated tirelessly on their behalf. Unsatisfied with the quality of children’s television at the time, he appeared before a U.S. Senate committee, pushing for government funding for children’s television. He disliked television, so he immersed himself in it to make it better.
Our children are lucky that they have a wide variety of quality children’s programming to watch, with countless people behind the scenes who genuinely care about the content they create and the children they create it for. Children in Fred Rogers' day had him.
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He also recognized something that wasn’t especially posh to address in the '60s, particularly for men: the importance of emotional intelligence. He knew that while it was important for children to learn letters and numbers, it was also fundamental that they learned how to handle the big feelings that come with being a small person in a big world. It’s a common theme now, but it was outside the box when he brought it to television. What a quiet but powerful message to send to young boys — and all children — that men have feelings and cry, too.
Fred Rogers passed away shortly after I fell for him. I felt his loss. I wished I had realized as a child what a gift he was giving me then. But that was part of his genius — his message was ingrained without fanfare.
Several years later, during an especially difficult time in my life, Fred Rogers spoke to me once again. I was feeling hopeless and aimless. I was lost. Then a picture of a much older-looking Mr. Rogers came on my screen, different from the man I remembered. It was captioned with his words. They read:
“I’m just so proud of all of you who have grown up with us, and I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead. But I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger. I like you just the way you are.”
Fred Rogers passed away shortly after I fell for him. I felt his loss. I wished I had realized as a child what a gift he was giving me then.
The tears began to fall, so hard I wasn’t sure they would ever stop. 30 years later, Mr. Rogers had found a way to say the exact right thing to the scared little child inside me, as he had done for so many children before me.
With the news that Tom Hanks will be portraying him in a biopic, You Are My Friend, I can only hope that others will see what an incredible human being he was, even if he was not as entertaining as Sesame Street or as whimsical as Mr. Dressup.
He was a genuine man with a kind heart, a gentle spirit and a conviction strong as nails. This world needs more people like Mr. Rogers.
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