Primer is kind of an old-fashioned word. It usually refers to the first book teaching children to read. It actually means any book of elementary principles, so it seems a good choice for Mister Rogers. Instead of writing about his principles of life, he lived them, Mister Rogers Primer.
The traffic light in the opening sequence of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was always on yellow—a reminder to the kids and their parents to slow down a little. Great place for all of us to start!
He cared about children understanding every word he used, and about parents and children growing together. So much so that he did some specials for them to use together to discuss issues. Children think much more literally and Mister Rogers was careful to address topics in ways they would understand. He was very open about feelings on every sort of topic, from why kids shouldn’t be afraid of haircuts, being sucked down the drain, divorce and war. Perhaps his empathy and connection came because he was bullied as a child and knew from experience what he called the “essential invisible” within the heart of children.
Mister Rogers Primer shows us how to treat others who may not be just like us. There is a heart-warming story about a little girl who wrote to him: “Please say when you are feeding your fish, because I worry about them. I can’t see if you are feeding them, so please say you are feeding them out loud.” Katie’s father noted that she was blind and would cry if Mister Rogers didn’t mention he’d fed the fish. After learning about Katie, Mister Rogers made a point of telling viewers that his fish were being fed, happy, and healthy.
Friendship was so important to Mister Rogers. It was a foundational principle. It came through in his personal responses to all his fan mail. He read and answered every one, as many as 50 – 100 a day, and never with a form letter. His principle of friendship shines in opting for a sofa and armchairs in his office, never a desk, because it would create a barrier. He said that what matters isn’t what we have, but what we do with what we have. “The alphabet is fine, but it’s what we do with it that matters most . . . like making words like “friend,” and “love.”
A good example is the story of the limo driver. On a fancy trip up to a PBS executive’s house, Mister Rogers heard the limo driver would have to wait outside for two hours. Mister Rogers insisted that the driver come in and join them. On the way back, Rogers sat up front, and learned that they were passing the driver’s house on the way. He asked if they could stop in to meet the family. The driver said it was one of the best nights of his life. The house lit up when Rogers arrived, and he played jazz piano and bantered with them late into the night.
Curiosity is another important value in Mister Rogers’ Primer. He said “Did you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind?” He wanted us to be curious about the world around us.
He never talked about religion even though he was a man of faith, and an ordained minister. Instead he lived by the values in every area of his life. He never engaged in the culture wars. Instead, he would simply say, “God loves you just the way you are.” These values were evident in many things. He “fought” with his wife in a caring way, telling her how frustrated he was when they disagreed. However, he also told her how lucky he was to have her in his family and how special she was. He actually got into television because he felt so strongly that it should be a medium that would nurture rather than tear down.
Mister Rogers understood that everyone has more in common than we know and that making the world a better place is everyone’s responsibility. He commented, “How sad it is that we give up on people who are just like us.” “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heros.” Fred Rogers His mother, calming him when he would see scary things in the news, would tell him to look for the helpers because there are always people who are helping.
When television handed him its highest honor, he responded by telling television—gently, of course—to just shut up for once, and television listened. He had already won his third Daytime Emmy, and now he went onstage to accept Emmy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. There, in front of all the soap-opera stars and talk-show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are….Ten seconds of silence.”
He lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and said softly, “I’ll watch the time”. There was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked…and so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds…and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran. The tears fell upon the be-glittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier, and Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said, “May God be with you” to all his vanquished children.
We are all children at heart. Mister Rogers’ Primer is for each of us, always. How delighted he would be if we all stepped up to fill his shoes.
With joy and thankfulness,
Compiled from: Beautiful Facts, Good Housekeeping, Mental Floss, Simple Thing Called Life, and Factinate