I was probably about 4 or 5 when it happened. It is my earliest memory of getting angry and punching somebody.
I was sitting in my living room, minding my own business, watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on our black and white box TV with the rabbit-ears antennae. My big brother Charlie walked in, turned the channel and said “I ain’t watching this. Mr. Rogers is gay.” I didn’t know what “gay” meant—and at just five years my elder, I doubt Charlie knew either— but I knew it was mean. Worst of all, that dork had just turned off Mr. Rogers—and nobody turns off my Mr. Rogers!
I started crying and screaming and hitting Charlie. “Turn it back! Turn it back!” I cried. When he started laughing at me and pushing me aside, I stormed upstairs to my mother and tearfully told her what my brother had said and done. She made him turn the TV back to Mr. Rogers. Charlie went outside, and all was right in the world again.
That’s the kind of relationship I had with Fred Rogers. I loved him and he loved me. He always told me that I was special and important and that I had a right to feel my feelings. He sang to me. He told me stories. He put on puppet shows. He convinced me that Marilyn Anderson, the little black girl with big dreams who lived on 95th Street on Chicago’s South Side with her parents and seven siblings, was his very best friend in the whole wide world for 30 uninterrupted minutes.
So when “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the new movie starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, premieres on November 22nd, I plan to be in somebody’s theater watching it with a box of tissues.
I’ll shed tears of nostalgia, for Mr. Rogers embraced people of all races and abilities. You see, while the white folks had quickly moved out of my neighborhood in the late 60s when families like mine started moving in, Mr. Rodgers was telling me this:
I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.
So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we’re together, we might as well say,
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
I’ll also need that box of tissues because these are the things kids today might never see. I feel sorry for the 4- and 5-year olds who know nothing about educational shows on PBS like “Sesame Street” that could teach them how to count, or make the letter sounds, or how to be a good friend. I see too many little kids at church or in the grocery store staring into mobile screens, playing video games, or, worse, watching YouTube videos of other little kids playing video games.
My heart is still upset about the 300,000 mostly low-income black and Latino kids recently spent 11 days out of school, watching three highly accomplished black women— Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, and Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacey Davis Gates—duke it out on the evening news over teacher salary increases, class sizes, and who is and is not being an honest negotiator. These are important issues that must be addressed, but oh, how I lament the toxic tenor of education policy discussions today!
Could Mr. Rogers have been so kind to kids on TV while also disparaging his colleagues in education and entertainment? I hope the movie depicts how Mr. Rogers dealt with inner-office conflicts, if he ever had any. For me, the legacy of Mr. Rogers is to embrace all kids, build a community that kids can love being a part of, and be a role model even in the midst of difficult times.
I was born in the 70s, and life was hard for my family back then. We were on and off food stamps. We stood in line for government-issued powdered milk and cheese. Our Christmas gifts were donated and wrapped by strangers. Our government-provided public education was free—and we often got what we paid for.
Still, we feasted on a constant supply of positivity. The love of our family and our small storefront church. Our double-dutch jumps and neighborhood bike rides. And, at least for me, Mr. Rogers, who celebrated the inherent beauty of my existence, despite the external circumstances.
If Tom Hanks sings Mr. Roger’s ending theme song in the movie, I know my tears will flow. I heard this tune every day of my life for many formative years, and it still pulls my heart strings:
It’s such a good feeling
To know you’re alive.
It’s such a happy feeling;
You’re growing inside.
And when you wake up ready to say:
I think I’ll make a snappy new day.
It’s such a good feeling,
A very good feeling.
The feeling you know, that I’ll be back
When the day is new.
And I’ll have more ideas for you.
And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about.
I will too.
— Marilyn Rhames
This post was originally published on Frederick Hess’ Straight Up blog on Education Week.