Friday, July 06, 2007

Misunderstanding Mister Rogers

One of the byproducts of working on ths film has been that we end up hearing some strange myths and untruths about our hero, Fred Rogers.

The big myth is that Mister Rogers was some sort of sniper killed all sorts of people in Vietnam. In fact, we met a few teenagers outside of The Smithsonian who couldn't be convinved otherwise. "That's why he always wore long sleeves," they said. "To hide his tattoos."

Of course, Mister Rogers wasn't a sniper, and didn't kill anyone, or -- for that matter -- have any tattoos. For Heaven's sake, I'd know; I hung out with him at the beach.

This week, The Wall Street Journal published commentary on the affect of Mister Rogers' message on kids.

    Don Chance, a finance professor at Louisiana State University, says it dawned on him last spring. The semester was ending, and as usual, students were making a pilgrimage to his office, asking for the extra points needed to lift their grades to A's.

    "They felt so entitled," he recalls, "and it just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers."

Of course, that Mister Rogers constantly told kids, "You are special," and that phrase somehow created generations of entitlement-crazed kids is absurd. Fortunately, The Huffington Post's Michelle Pilecki took the article to task.

"Whatever 'culture' or 'doting' the WSJ is talking about," she writes, "has nothing to do with the actual mission embodied in the program."

The show (and, ergo, the man), she continues, "is designed for children, encourages children to feel good about themselves, helps children learn the skills needed for learning readiness, is based on solid principles of child development and child psychology, encourages appreciation of and respect for others, and promotes values that are important to all children and families."

"Fred taught us," she concludes, that "we shouldn't be hurtful in our anger, and respect the differences in others while recognizing their shortcomings."

I'm not sure about the shortcomings part, but he didn't lash out when he was angry or hurt, he played piano or went for a swim.

In the time that I knew him, Mister Rogers gave me a few small birthday gifts, and sent me two care packages. one of the care packages contained a booklet of magnetic postcards. My favorite hangs on the fridge. I read it every morning and smile.

It reads, You Are Special.

I've wrestled with self esteem most of my life. I've often felt like I didn't fit in, either because I was new to town, or liked to sing instead of play football, or like to write instead of watch tv. I've been bullied plenty. So Mister Rogers and his message resonated with me long before meeting him. It stil does when I see that postcard on the fridge every morning.

That some kids think Mister Rogers was a sniper is wacky. That some professor somewhere thinks Mister Rogers is to blame for entitlement is nuts. That some bully tossed me up against the lockers because he thought I was a "fag" still makes me sad.

But even today, when my confidence wavers, or I feel persecuted or out of place, I think of Mister Rogers, and I play my guitar or go for a run.

And every time I see Ethan -- in fact, just yesterday -- I whisper in his ear, "you are special!"

Even if he grows up and gets a tattoo.

He's special. And so am I. And so are you.

Update: Professor Don Chance retracted his statement, saying, "The reference to Mr. Rogers was just a metaphor. I have no professional qualifications to evaluate the real problems or propose solutions. Mr. Rogers was a great American. I watched him with my children and wouldn’t hesitate to do so again if I had young children."

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