We need Mr. Rogers more than ever

Fred Rogers was as humble and authentic in private as he was in public.
Fred Rogers was as humble and authentic in private as he was in public. AP file photo

When my sons were young, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” came on during The Witching Hour, the late afternoon when hungry, exhausted children and their parents collectively lose their minds. A cuddle on the sofa watching Mr. Rogers while dinner baked was a quiet antidote to the hectic pace of the day. With simple sets and quiet music, Mr. Rogers offered messages of love and inclusion, kindness and empathy.

In the new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” director Morgan Neville weaves together archival footage with interviews with Rogers’ family, friends, and co-workers to present an image of a religious man deeply committed to making children feel valued and loved.

The words of his iconic theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” hark back to the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Bible.

In the parable, Jesus describes a traveler who is beaten, robbed and left for dead. Two religious leaders notice the man lying on the road but choose not to help. A third man, a member of the despised Samaritan tribe, is moved by compassion to nurse the wounded traveler and save his life. Which of the three men was the real neighbor, Jesus asks.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers answered that question in the music that opened each show. Being a neighbor is not our proximity to someone but a choice to care for each other. Being a neighbor means widening our circle of concern. Being a neighbor means valuing and working for the common good.

As someone who works with children, I think often about how to communicate that same message to my students.

I want them to know they are valued and their voices matter now.

And I hope they grow into citizens of the world, as concerned about their neighbors in foreign lands as they are about their friends across the street, as committed to improving the future as they are about learning from the past.

I also think a great deal about how the rest of us could use a reminder about Fred Rogers’ ideas about neighbors. That includes working to make our public schools, which educate the vast majority of American students, the best they can be.

Last week, the Schott Foundation and the Network for Public Education released “A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools,” and not surprisingly, both North Carolina and South Carolina earned failing grades for their lackluster support of public education.

“Although the public school system is not perfect and has continual room for improvement,” the researchers state in the executive summary, “it is still the cornerstone of community empowerment and advancement in American society. The required inclusivity of the public school setting provides more opportunity for students to learn in culturally, racially, and socioeconomically integrated classrooms and schools, and that promotes social-emotional and civic benefits for students.”

That “required inclusivity” frightens some people, but it shouldn’t. It helps us improve the world by getting to know each other as neighbors.

On his deathbed, Fred Rogers worried that he hadn’t done enough to improve the world. “Am I a sheep?” he asked, referencing another parable, this one where Jesus separates the good sheep from the useless goats.

Perhaps someone this humble, as authentic and honest in private as he was in public, as dedicated to helping children and leaving the world a better place, is truly one of a kind. For all our sakes, I hope not.

McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: