Sunday, April 10, 2016

Fighting for X: The Legacy of Fred Rogers


Watching Mr. Rogers put on his cozy, brightly colored sweaters and change into his navy blue sneakers (that now look simultaneously retro and timeless) was a truly comforting ritual for me as a three year old playing with Lincoln Logs in front of the TV.

wqed.org
What I did not know as a Gen X tot of the late 1970's was this man was much more dimensional than the simple lessons he taught me, he was someone who actually fought for my generation.

I remember being a toddler and experiencing this new found fear of going down the bathtub drain - but not for long.  That same week, coincidentally, there was a Mr. Rogers episode where he talked about this very subject, and he reassured me that it was impossible and explained exactly why.  I distinctly remember how he would look at me from the screen with his compassionate eyes, like he was reaching out to me individually, reassuring me that everything would be okay.  And while our fears change as we get older, isn't that what we really want, to know that everything is going to be okay?

As a preschooler, I found the cadence to his voice peaceful and comforting - he spoke slowly enough for me to clearly understand him, unlike Walter Cronkite and news anchors I would see who spoke so fast about a world I couldn't understand, that I couldn't follow along at all.  In the 1970's, many of our living rooms had box shaped TVs that were actually colossal pieces of furniture, and since the screen was near to the floor, he would speak to me, on my level, in every sense.  

As time went on and I got past first grade, when flipping through the channels to find some cartoon, I would come across his show and I would see his preschool vernacular through the eyes of an older child - I wasn't sure why he spoke the way he did - it seemed a little too slow or even off-putting.  As an adult I can see that the way he spoke came from profound wisdom and love.  My first generation American Gen X husband watched Mr. Rogers as he was learning English as a second language and heading toward kindergarten in the early 1980's, and this is one piece of what helped him learn English so quickly.   Many immigrant parents probably found comfort in the slower pace of his voice - in understanding what he was saying as their kids were educated by his show.   Because of his deliberate, slower pace, children with different levels of hearing impairment could also watch his show and follow along much easier than on other shows.   He had a way of reaching out to kids from every socioeconomic background, culture, and situation.


You've probably seen the famous footage online of Fred Rogers addressing the U.S. Congress for much-needed funds for PBS. He gave this speech in 1969, when the first wave of Generation X was very young, and the second wave was about to be born.  While he is fighting for children's educational programming on public television, he was in fact fighting for Generation X.

There is something noble about fighting for people that are your own race or your own generation, and there is something even more noble about fighting for people that are of a different race or a different generation, because you have much less, or probably even nothing, to personally gain as a result.  Gen X grew up in a time when every area of society crumbled around us, where lies and hidden stories that surfaced about prominent leaders in our society caused us to become a cynical generation. Yet Mr. Rogers gave us a reason to have hope that there are truly good, sincere people in the world.

PBS.org
Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister.  In seminary, he narrowed down on his calling, not one of a traditional church pulpit ministry, but one that was profoundly creative - using the medium of TV to help people - specifically children.  When I look at the work of Mr. Rogers through a theological lens, this is how I see the set of his show: he would enter the show on a platform that reminds me of an elevated wooden pulpit, ones like you might see in certain traditional or formal churches, and then he would step down from it, to meet us where we were.  I feel that his brightly colored sweaters were his his simple vestments, and he would change them like a priest changes vestments for the liturgical seasons.  At the beginning of each show,  as he takes off his formal jacket to put on a casual sweater, as if to say that he might have been a man with a pastoral title and a divinity degree, but he was going to keep it simple and light so that we could let down our guard.  He never talked about God on the show because it was unnecessary - it was already clear that God was with him by the light that sparkled from his eyes, and that God was with us, especially when we learned that we were lovable for being our true selves.  Of all the times in life that people told me that they liked me (except they wished I would lose some weight) or that people told me they liked me a lot (but they wished I would wear nicer, designer clothes) or that they loved me (but I needed to change to who I was) it was vital to have a foundation in life that I could be "deep and simple, not shallow and complex".

There are more than enough of us Gen Xers who have been wounded by churches, who have been betrayed by people in church leadership, who have given up on church altogether, or who struggle to get ourselves to church regularly not only because society taught us to mistrust institutions as we grew up, but also because when we did somehow manage to get ourselves to church, people in power were abusive toward us.  And that is why was so important to us for there to be someone, even just one person, for us, who was alive in our lifetime who was a true beacon for God to us, who gave us substance, who had no dark back story or double life, who was genuine and respectable.  The more you read about Mr. Rogers, the more you see what he meant to our generation collectively and individually.


A private disagreement he was having with his wife was accidentally picked up by an audio recorder on the set of his show in 1981.  This was the year when the divorce rate in America was at its peak. This is what he said to his wife: "Sometimes when we disagree, I feel frustrated.  But I never forget how lucky I am to have you in my family.  Always remember how special you are."  He was also a father, and a grandfather.  He was from the Silent Generation, and his second son is Generation X.  Not only was he was a Presbyterian minister, he was many other things simultaneously - including an author, a composer, and an activist: 

"When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you ever see or hear or touch.  That deep part of you that allows you stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive.  Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed."

Here is a link that includes more about his life story:

Weaving a Magnificent Life Tapestry

Photo by Jim Judkis


While I say that he fought for X - he was a fighter in the sense that he disarmed people with his truth and love.  He had a way of connecting with people, maybe because of his profound love for each person he met, maybe for the Imago Dei that he saw in every person.  You could see it on his show, you can see it in photos.   In this photo: a sweet Gen X boy, Tommy, born in 1973 with hydroencephalitis and who was abandoned by his birth mother.   He passed away in 2011.  This photo went viral after the Sandy Hook school shooting with words of wisdom from Mr. Rogers about when tragedy occurs.
There are so many amazing quotes by Fred Rogers, there are some you already know, and there are some that might surprise you - click here to see a list of them:


Gen Xer, Rolling Stone Magazine writer, and MTV news producer Benjamin Wagner was the actual next door neighbor of Mr. Rogers.   He and his brother Christofer recently created a beautiful documentary on life of Fred Rogers that has already won awards at multiple film festivals: 



In case you didn't know it, Gen Xers, Mr. Rogers left a message for you just before he passed away in 2003, this is his goodbye to us....



He wanted you to know that he is so proud of you.  He knows how hard it can be to look toward the future with hope.  He wants you to know that the message he gave you as a child is the same one he gives you now - you are valued, you are valuable, and he wants you to pass this on to the next generation.  

When I look at the whole of Fred Roger's life, I cannot get over the kind of person he was -  he was a fatherly presence to a fatherless generation.  His legacy spans beyond Generation X, it spans out to all children who are and will be affected by what he taught.  He knew what his calling was, and he followed it with grace, creativity, and originality.  So far, in all my years of researching and writing about Generation X, I haven't found anyone outside of our generation who has ever fought for us in the way that he did.  He stood up for us in front of the U.S. Congress, and delivered a speech that got the funding for a show to go on the air that helped us deal with our fears, and manage life, and growing up.  He changed the course of many of our childhoods, he changed the course of mine.   I hope that as I write more about Generation X, and continue to search through the pages of history to understand what made us who we are, that I find more than just this one person who stood up for us.  I'll keep looking.

Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for what you did for my generation.

"One of the greatest dignities of humankind is that each successive generation is invested in the welfare of each new generation." - Fred Rogers 1928-2003


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(c) 2016 - writing by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved 


A huge thank you to everyone who has, and who does contribute to PBS.  

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