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Mad? Mr. Rogers has the answer

Fred Rogers with puppet pal King Friday XIII. Rogers died more than a decade ago, but his words still bring comfort.
Fred Rogers with puppet pal King Friday XIII. Rogers died more than a decade ago, but his words still bring comfort.

From the moment they woke up that particular day, my young children had filled my day with chaos. Soggy underwear, standing in the high chair, swinging on the door until it shut itself on small fingers, screaming, crying – all before breakfast.

I tried to be loving, I promise, but as the day wore on, I felt worn, too. Lost. Would every day be like this? I wondered if I could corral their tears without crying myself.

Then 5 o’clock arrived, and the kids settled, familiar notes on the xylophone drawing them into the web of Mr. Rogers. Fred pulled on the sweater his mother knitted him and sang about his beautiful neighborhood, and I settled, too, soothed by his soft voice and staccato notes. On most days back then, I’d use the quiet half hour to start supper, fold laundry, pick up toys, but not on this day, for some reason.

I didn’t notice the clock, caught up as I was in his conversation with Mr. McFeely – a cross between Captain Kangaroo and Mailman John, who knocked on our door every day. Then came the train to Make-Believe and Daniel Tiger and King Friday, and well, by the time Fred shed his sweater and sneakers, I was shed of my frustration and ready to mother again.

That was close to 30 years ago. I can recall it because I wrote a letter to him, never mailed. “(We) know your power over restless toddlers, how you calm their fears,” I wrote. “But did you know that you rescue their mothers on harrowing days when our tireless work has fallen short of the mark?”

During the election and in the days since, I've been searching for a voice like Fred Rogers’ to calm my fears at the tenor of the country, on both sides of the aisle.

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” seems to be the last thing on people’s minds, and I find that troubling. But solace came unexpectedly last week, as I walked the dog to the pace of the “Fresh Air” podcast. Host Terry Gross was interviewing NPR television critic David Bianculli, author of a new book about the history of television. When asked about his favorite scenes, he referenced a live Congressional hearing in the late 1960s, when the government was considering whether to fund public television.

“I work with children,” said a voice so familiar to me that I breathed it in. Mr. Rogers, as if he’d never left us. A pioneer in public television – he created his first children’s program with a budget of $30 – Mr. Rogers testified about his roles as writer, puppeteer and host of his program, and how he knew what children (and their mothers) needed to hear.

“I’m constantly concerned with what our children are seeing,” he said. “For 15 years … I have tried to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care.

“Could I tell you the words of one of the songs that I feel is very important?”

“It’s about control,” he said. “Children need to know control is there.” And he then began to read a poem I’d long forgotten.

“What do you with the mad that you feel?” he asked. “That first line came straight from a child.”

“When you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong and nothing you do seems very right?”

Yes, those feelings are rampant right now in our country. From those who are unhappy with the outcome of the election and from those whose anger brought about the election’s outcome.

What can I do about the anger? What can I do about my fears?

“Do you punch a bag?” he asks.

“Do you pound some clay or some dough?

Do you round up friends for a game of tag?

Or see how fast you go?”

His message rang so true to me, nearly 50 years later. Round up some friends. See how fast we can go.

As I let Mr. Rogers’ words soak in, I remembered that long ago day when I couldn’t quite get control of my situation. “I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” he sang, and I knew he meant it, then and now.

The answer, for me at least, is to take that message literally. Put on my comfy clothes and my sneakers, and be that neighbor.

Susan Byrum Rountree can be reached at susanbrountree@gmail.com

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