How can I feel nostalgia for a show I never watched?
A few weeks ago, I was at a showing of a film with my boyfriend. As the trailers played, we chatted (quietly, of course!), offering running commentary on each trailer and exchanging our various hopes for each film. When the trailer for Morgan Neville‘s documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, came on, I got very quiet. So quiet that my boyfriend turned his head. He saw tears running down my face and said: “Are you crying? But you didn’t even grow up watching him!”
For many reasons, I had an inconsistent relationship with TV growing up. My parents didn’t see the point in cable, so I was limited to CBC and CTV, where I would jump from The Simpsons to The O.C. and back. If I got home early enough or had a sick day, I would watch Oprah. A lot of the TV that I watched was very much PG. I was raised on Friends box sets and David Attenborough documentaries.
Although I developed an attachment to characters (fictional and not) on TV, they were performing primarily for adults. They made sex jokes that flew right over my head, made references to things I hadn’t learned in class yet, and behaved like — albeit childish — adults. And don’t get me wrong, I liked watching TV and films meant for adults. It made me feel like I was preparing myself for adulthood while also feeling I already was one. But still, I never had someone on TV like Mister Rogers. Someone who treated me like a child, without any condescension or trying-too-hard playfulness.
What exposure I did have to children’s shows, however, made me think that they were an anticipation or a continuation of school curriculum. Sesame Street taught you how to spell with the help of Elmo and Big Bird, and The Magic School Bus took you on a ride while ou learned about science. Those are all very worthy missions. However, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was interested in a different kind of teaching. If other kid shows put stock in elevating a child’s IQ, host Fred Rogers prioritized EQ. Being able to identify and express your feelings to someone you trust to listen was his goal.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran on PBS from 1968 until 2001. Bridging the gap between baby boomers and millennials, the show altered the way people thought about kids’ TV, and about TV in general. It always started the same: Mister Rogers opened the front door, walked to the closet, took off his jacket and hung it up, put on a cardigan and changed into his sneakers, all the while singing a song.
There would be little changes here and there (maybe a defunct zipper, or a prop in hand), but that opening set the mood for the rest of the half hour. Slow and steady, like a turtle, was Rogers’s M.O. He hated the manic pacing of children’s shows and went out of his way to slow down the show. In one episode, he put an egg timer in center frame and set it to a minute so that children could know what a minute feels like. And that’s the key word: feels. His field of interest was the experience of feelings.
Of course, I knew none of this before seeing the documentary a few nights ago, and yet I have felt both regret and gratitude in the past few days. Regret that I did not grow up watching his show but intense gratitude that so many did. However, I have to admit that I did feel pangs of cynicism throughout the film. I didn’t like feeling like I was a child. Indeed, at times, I felt irritated by Rogers’s puppet voice and skeptical of his commitment to loving all children (Really!? All kids? I don’t buy it).
Like many viewers, I half-accepted the documentary to reveal him as a fake, an alcoholic pastor, struggling to find truth in the words he preached. Although I’d bet that my recent viewing of First Reformed had something to do with that, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? focuses in on the persona and the historical impact of the show, not the psychology of Fred Rogers.
But if at times I felt the tinge of cynicism, I was quickly reminded that that feeling was exactly what Mister Rogers tried to combat. My cynicism was really an expression of my discomfort. It is rare to see an adult — especially someone like Mister Rogers, who experienced “every imaginable disease” and could have easily approached life from a place of fear and anger — be guided by his feelings to a place of trust and fun. The nostalgia I was feeling was for a time before cynicism. When I didn’t doubt or seek to question kindness. I just accepted it.
I’m not one for diagnosing an entire society or announcing any film as a cure for our troubled times, but I do have hope that cultivating an understanding of one’s self has expansive capabilities. If someone can teach you that listening to your feelings and communicating them is a skill worth honing, then your ears are better primed for listening to others. Fred Rogers didn’t preach niceness, in all its placid vagueness. He was kind. He looked directly into the camera, directly at you, and told you that you mattered. It was up to you what you did with that feeling.