One of my favorite keepsakes from my childhood is a record. It’s ensconced in a blue jacket, with a simple photo of a smiling man on the cover. He has salt-and-pepper hair, and he’s wearing a comfy cardigan sweater as he smiles directly into the camera. Written along with the man’s name are three simple words: “You Are Special”. Inside the jacket, along with the record, is a letter addressed to me, thanking me for writing to him and for being his neighbor and friend. It’s signed by none other than Mister Rogers. It was my first fan letter. I was probably barely old enough to write.
While I’ve always been drawn to stories and storytellers, Mister Rogers is one of the few people who has had a significant impact on multiple points in my life.
- As a child, I embraced him as my “television neighbor”. I learned many interesting things from him, and believed him wholeheartedly when he said I was important, that I was special, just by being me.
- As a musician, I realized many years later than I had been introduced to this new thing called “jazz” way back when I was too young to realize that music even had genres. So wonderfully subtle, some of his teachings. (Seriously, go listen to some of that beautiful music.)
- As a young adult, I learned about his impassioned plea for financial support for PBS. His beautiful speech to a Senate subcommittee still reinforces my own goals as a creative person, a teacher to my own kids, and an advocate for mental health.
- In troubled times, I return to his words still, when I’m afraid or angry or confused. And I find that his message and his ideas still resonate with me, long past my childhood years.
Certainly things have happened over the years that made me hard and cynical for a time. And even today, I have moments where I lose faith, either in others or in myself. But deep down, I still hear the beautiful and kind message of Mister Rogers, gently guiding me through challenges and urging me to believe in myself the way he believed in me. Strange how someone I’ve never met had such a profound and lasting impact on me, so much of an impact in fact that it’s difficult to even write this out without getting emotional. (I still remember trying not to cry while watching his last episode with my then-three-year-old son.) It’s one thing to say that words matter, that kindness matters. It’s another to witness the living embodiment of that kindness inspiring millions of people all over the world.
And so, to honor the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, I am making myself a promise: that I will do better at being a force for kindness and unconditional love in the world. That I will work to be someone who Fred Rogers would have been proud to have as an actual neighbor. That I will help others believe in the goodness they have inside them, and help them share that with the world. Because it’s about more than just celebrating a television program; it’s about honoring (and continuing) a legacy.
It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends. Thank you, Mister Rogers.
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I also recommend watching Fred Rogers Message to those who grew up with the Neighborhood from The Fred Rogers Company on Vimeo.