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Sat, 15 Mar 2003 Mister Rogers: Stranger in a Strange Land -- Thank God

Rather than rant about Gulf War II: Electric Boogaloo tonight, I want to write down some ideas that struck me when thinking about the life and work of Fred Rogers; some ideas that I haven't seen mentioned in any of the writing either eulogizing or kind-heartedly (or sometimes, not so kind-heartedly) mocking him. His television show shares, among the tragically hip, an stereotype one might associate with the "special" individuals consigned to ride the short bus to school every day: "kind-heareted," hopelessly slow, doomed never to grow up, and therefore mired in an irrelevant past that has nothing to do with the world of arms inspections, Sept. 11th, Grand Theft Auto, botox, dot-bombs, and Internet-mediated one-night-stands.

But the real gift of Fred Rogers was that he had, in fact, a profound understanding about the medium of television and how to use it to convey his dead-serious messages to children. Marshall McLuhan spoke of hot and cool media; Fred Rogers realized that to use television, it was not necessary to introduce jump cuts and brightly colored fuzzy characters: instead, it was necessary to cool down the medium, to slow down the message, not to wind up children with candy and junk breakfast cereal and toy advertisements, but to speak slowly and directly, to introduce minimal props and a homey, comforting, and most importantly, consistent, environment.

Mister Rogers could have modernized; he could have introduced flashy animation and dancing bears; King Friday the Thirteenth, Daniel Striped Tiger, and Esmerelda could have become anime characters or green-furred muppets with tentacles or little Elmos or Pikachus, endearing, but ultimately vacuous. Instead he focused tirelessly on some very simple messages: sometimes the world is a frightening place; everyone gets frightened. It's OK. You can never go down the drain. You are special. (Not merely, ironically "special.")

Do a quick comparison between Mister Rogers' living room here, a suburban living room that is positively boring, but a calm and collected place to interact, and Elmo's living room, a technological marvel full of hyperactive objects, puppeteered in real-time by an entire team of human puppeteers driving computer-generated objects, that won't give Elmo a moment's peace. Which is going to give kids the time to reflect and understand that is necessary for developing a sense of self-worth and self-efficacy?

Exercise for the reader: why does Sesame Street, designed for children older than Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is designed for, assume that the older children need such intense stimulation? Could it be that it is really the adults running the show who crave the stimulation they are putting on the screen? And which approach to educational television for young, vulnerable, easily confused, and easily over-stimulated children is actually deserving of your mockery? Discuss.

Fred Rogers wrote:

Whatever we do to show our children we love them, nothing can replace times when we give them our complete attention. I believe that the children who have learned that there will be such times for them are the ones who are at least likely to demand it and to compete for it.

If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.

We'd all like to feel self-reliant and capable of coping with whatever adversity comes our way, but that's not how most human beings are made. It's my belief that the capacity to accept help is inseparable from the capacity to give help when our turn comes to be strong.

As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has -- or ever will have -- something inside that is unique to all time. It's our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.

Fred Rogers was not a doddering, dull man, although it saddened me to see age dig its claws into his body. He was a rare man who was lucky enough to discover what he wanted to do -- what gave him joy and what use the world had for him -- and he did it. How many of us have what he had, and give the world something that it truly needs?

Addendum 23 Mar 2004: The Children's Television Workshop broke the link for Elmo's World; it attempts to forward, but to a bad URL. Elmo's World seems to be here now: http://www.sesameworkshop.org/sesamestreet/elmosworld/ but I was unable to find the "Elmo's Living Room" interface; it seems to have been replaced with a new interface to choose mini-games.

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