EPISODE 1652 OF the children’s television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” begins when the host, an upper-middle-aged Fred Rogers, enters the house inexplicably holding the plastic bendy tube from a vacuum cleaner. He shows it to us at home, then uses it as a tunnel for a toy car. He also puts a towel on his head and pretends to be an elephant, using the tube as a trunk. This continues until a friend arrives and teaches him the word “namaste.” She also produces some kazoos upon which she and Rogers play “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” Another friend arrives, expanding the London Bridge Kazoo Orchestra to an ensemble of three. Ten minutes have passed.
I watched this episode recently and it had the bizarre effect of making me burst into tears. I don’t just mean that I got nostalgic or weepy. I did that during the opening credits, when the glockenspiel trickles out the main theme, and the quiet tintinnabulation accompanies slow tracking shots of a tiny model of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — the site of the show and also much of my childhood. I mean that at a certain point in the episode, I completely lost control of my ability to contain myself. I trembled, shook, and gasped for air. My body had the idea to collapse out of my chair onto the floor, but I had to make a conscious decision not to follow through with it because this random emotional disintegration was already too much, and I didn’t need it going any further on a Monday afternoon.
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I was not crying at the kazoos or even at the “Land of Make-Believe” segment, which had a dreamlike and unresolved plot about Lady Aberlin trying to find the source of wind while an elephant attempts to learn how to use a boomerang. I was not crying when someone named Troll took a census and later learned how to rub noses with another human. These things were curious, and perhaps a tad bit surreal, but by no means tear inducing. I didn’t yet know why I was crying. I just was.
After the make-believe segment, Fred Rogers sits with the mailman, Mr. McFeely, and these two grown-ass men spend some time putting shoelaces through the holes in construction paper to make exceedingly unremarkable designs. McFeely appears visibly less impressed with the exercise than Rogers, but nonetheless is good-hearted about it, gracefully bowing out after a few minutes. Fred Rogers then feeds his fish and casually makes the following observation: “It’s fun to learn things, and the best way to learn things is being taught by someone you love.” Therein lies the theme of the episode. Learning.
We then get a film segment of B-roll accompanied by a Guaraldi-esque piano jazz trio, where people teach things to people whom they love. A white woman shows her kid how to roller-skate down a sidewalk. A Black woman sits in the grass with a toddler and a slightly older kid, and they take turns playing with a puzzle toy. I don’t entirely remember what happened next because that’s when the wailing started; that’s when I closed my eyes and retreated into some place of pain that I still don’t entirely understand. When I opened them again, a South Asian man was teaching his son how to sauté vegetables.
This episode aired in August of 1992. It had been a year since then President George H.W. Bush had mainstreamed the concept of “political correctness” by criticizing it in a University of Michigan commencement address. Five years earlier, philosopher Allan Bloom had found mainstream success with his book “The Closing of the American Mind,” which gave credence to the claim that by trying to make society less racist, we were in fact descending into fascism. Or something. The early ’90s were the precious early seedling days of the conservative strategy of treating the cultural manifestations of liberalism — anti-racism, feminism, queer rights — as the enemy, in order to convince people that the entire project of political equality should be abandoned. Thirty years later we see that this strategy has worked with only a percentage of the population; but with them it has worked virulently.
For the last 50 years or so, the most anodyne truth — that we all deserve the same political, social, and human rights — has been opportunistically framed by some as a malevolent threat. This is what makes “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” transcendent. His is a political cultural argument, an expression of that truth framed in simple, undeniable terms. Terms like, “It is good to learn from people you love.”
On its own, this sentence has all the political power of a slogan printed on a disposable coaster. But that sentence is not on its own. It comes after Fred Rogers has spent 23 minutes giving us the feeling of learning from someone you love. He doesn’t communicate by talking; he communicates by listening. He listens to the people on his show, treats each person, each activity, each game, song, idea, thought, fear, and kazoo with the same amount of respect. He does that because in the world of his show, those thoughts, fears, ideas, and kazoos belong to children. And the show’s purpose is to teach children to be good people by having them spend time with good people. Goodness here is defined as the willingness to pay attention to the things capitalism tells us are unworthy of our time and attention. Things you cannot buy or sell. Found objects. Friends. Time. Connection.
This alone should not have made me cry. There should be nothing devastating about people being nice to toddlers or listening to their friends. What I now think made me cry is that right up until the moment I saw this woman being nice to two children while music played softly in the background, I had been holding myself together alone in the world. I had been both the mother and the children. I had been watching people be acquitted of murders, and hearing about sexual assaults, thefts, starvation, and acts of violence, imminent and remote. I had been listening to the stark and utter carelessness of the people who pass for “leaders” nowadays. And through it all I had no one, not a single person to join with the little tiny part of me that remembers that we are actually supposed to care for one another. That while this care is often small and quiet, subtle and finespun, it is also sacred and profound, the very stuff of life. That little tiny part of me was all alone in my apartment. That is, until I started the episode and somewhere between the kazoo trio and an old man putting a towel on his head, Fred Rogers managed to sneak inside of me and join that tiny part. He told that part of me that it was okay, and even correct, to want to be kind.
Goodness here is defined as the willingness to pay attention to the things capitalism tells us are unworthy of our time and attention. Things you cannot buy or sell. Found objects. Friends. Time. Connection.
Trauma, in one sense, is unaccompanied grief — pain that has been created in you and then abandoned and left for dead. It wanders the halls of your psyche without companionship, seeking to latch on to any visitors — making noise, moving furniture across the room, howling in the dead of the night hoping to be recognized. Fred Rogers, through his quiet kindness and his benevolent focus, had the utterly humane ability to show up and accompany our trauma, like a gentle visitor to its solitary confinement. At least that’s what happened to me in episode 1652. And that’s why I broke down crying. Not because I was sad, but because a part of me that was used to being alone had, for a brief moment, a friend.
That is what Fred Rogers gives us. Companionship to the parts of us that need it most but have it least — the small child within us that looks at our world and wonders why it must be the way that it is. He does not judge that part, or call that part a snowflake, or tell that part to kill itself, or even to go outside and touch grass. He just sits alongside it, tells it about his day, shares some ideas, plays a game with it, thanks it for being here. He just sits alongside that part and loves it, learns from it.
Of course, we will be giving a lot of gifts, food, and money this upcoming holiday season. Groceries, cards, presents, and family “vacations.” Of course, we will do all this while also watching our collective grief and trauma wreak havoc on one another and on the world; and, of course, we will try to hold it together because that’s what we do. We have to. We are the mother and both of the children. But maybe the most important gift we can give — and I still can’t believe how dumb this sounds, I’m almost crying at how dumb this sounds, I will be forever crying at how dumb this sounds — maybe the most important gift we can give is and has always been the gift of accompanying each other’s grief.
Illustrations — © 2021 Nigel Van Wieck / Licensed by AFNYLAW.com
Carvell Wallace Writer
Carvell Wallace is an author and podcaster based in California. He writes about art, culture, family, relationships, music, sports, and memories. His memoir on love and trauma will be published by MCDxFSG books in 2022.
Nigel Van Wieck Illustrator
Nigel Van Wieck is a painter who lives and works in New York. He has created a distinctive idiom firmly rooted in American Realism, with a focus on city life, bars, street corners, beaches, and parks. He has exhibited worldwide at venues including Alex Reid & Lefevre, The Venice Biennale’s Centennial Exhibition, and the Didier Aaron Gallery.