le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Why Mister Rogers Matters

A lot of academics spend a great deal of time trying to explain why their scholarly work matters. I know I spent a lot of time - and still do - trying to justify my ivory-tower life: what does reading and writing have to do with anything in the Real World? How is this not a relentlessly selfish pursuit?

First: because I teach. The activist angle of teaching was first made clear to me at Georgetown, by my brilliant and wonderful advisor. She said: "yes, these kids are privileged [and at Georgetown, almost quadruply so] but they are also the people who will be in charge of corporations and companies. They'll be in politics and positions of power. And if you can introduce to them now some of these ideas [any activist/progressive/radical ideas], it may affect the way they do their business in future."

Teaching is, or can be, activism, and my teaching often is. This is good, and it's the main thing I do, day in and day out, to make sure my work actually does something.

The second thing I do - and what I'm writing about now - is scholarly work on things that matter. Things that can actually make a difference in the way people understand themselves, or others, or the world around them. I made a decision in my first year in Pittsburgh that I was going to consciously write in clear, legible prose; I jettisoned the obfuscating and tortured jargon and construction of so many literary theorists. If a roomful of PhD students can't make sense of a phrase from Frederic Jameson, how in gods name can the "workers," the disenfranchised, the disaffected, make sense of it? And if it's all just babble to the elite, how can it be anything but condescending, self-congratulatory largesse?

So structurally, linguistically, theoretically, I choose the pragmatic and readable.
The topics are even more important.
My dissertation is, ostensibly, about imaginary/imaginative play spaces in children's media, and the way these spaces enable and encourage radical play, difference and experimentation (specifically with gender and sexuality, but with other aspects of life as well).
Really, though, what I'm writing about are places where it's okay - even great, even better - to be different. To be yourself. Places where you, in whatever form you feel like expressing yourself, are safe and loved and admired and respected.
The ultimate of these is Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, a show which seems to have made worlds of difference in the lives of scores of children (and their families). I've spent considerable time in the archives, reading viewer mail, and the love and affirmation these kids (and adults) feel for and from Mr Rogers is staggering. Almost every letter is a tearjerker. Almost every letter mentions, at least once, Mister Rogers' mantra of "I like you just exactly the way you are."

How rarely are we told this?

Lesley Kinzel, the astute and incisive writer of Fatshionista, writes back in response to the appalling burst of suicides from young gay kids in recent weeks - the most dramatic and spectacular of these, of course, being the death of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi. Lesley writes, in an effort to support those kids who are bullied and hurt and abused and sad and lonely:
So instead, I’ve written what I would have liked to hear, back then, in my darkest adolescent moments. I am touched by people every day who tell me that the things I write here — even the things I am convinced no one will relate to, that I believe are too specific or too raw or too me — that these things help them. That hearing it helps people to know that they’re not alone. Thus, I’m hoping that this will likewise speak to some of you.
You are okay.

She's doing the work of Fred Rogers here, whether she means to or not. We should all be doing the work of Fred Rogers: reminding each other that yes, YOU are likable and lovable; that you make each day a special day but just your being you; that there is no one else in this world exactly like you, and that that adds to the glorious variety of the world. That I like you just the way you are.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is off the air in most districts now, except perhaps on weekends; in Pittsburgh, home of the program and Fred Rogers, it's still on daily. It's dated, sure; there are no cellphones, no iPods, no laptops. No networking, except through Mr McFeely's speedy deliveries. No Facebook, except all the real friends who visit each other, both in Mr Rogers' neighborhood, and in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

There's nothing like this on tv now, where educational children's television is all about skills acquisition, and not about emotion.  There's no Mister Rogers, showing up every day at the same time - as he promises at the end of every episode - to say "Hi neighbor. I like you!"

The letters in the archive come from parents, from children of all ages, from adults, from the very elderly. Everyone you can imagine writes to Mister Rogers, and they all say, in varying ways, the same thing: we love you, Mister Rogers, because you love us. We need someone to tell us, every day, that we're okay, and mean it. We feel better about our abilities and disabilities, as children, as mothers, as friends, as siblings, as fathers, as retirees, as very elderly single women with no families, because of you. We are able, because of you, to go out into our worlds as happier, more confident people, willing and able and actively doing things to make the world a better more interesting place.
So writing about Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, for me, is activism. It's me saying: LOOK! Look how much we needed Fred Rogers. Look how much he - just one guy, on a low-budget public tv show - was able to do, for so, so many people. Look how little he had to do, to do so very much.
It's saying, Fred Rogers wasn't a saint. He was a very, very good man with powerful motivation and a message that we all need, that we all know we need. If he could do it, so can we all. There's nothing so extraordinary, after all, in that show: bringing in something new to look at and think about. Going on a visit to an everyday place: a music shop, a restaurant, a dance studio, a potter's workshop, a shoe factory. Saying: sometimes it's really hard, isn't it? and you get angry, or sad, or confused, or scared. And that's okay, because I like you when you're angry, or sad, or confused, or scared. Because I like you, just exactly as you are.
Because you make every day a special day, by just your being you.

Because every one of us is important and meaningful and real and human. Always, every day, even when you're scared, or angry, or confused, or hurt, or sad. And you contribute to the infinite variety on this planet, the infinite variety that makes the world so very interesting and fun and curious and amazing. Losing even one person from that huge mosaic of difference makes the whole thing a tiny bit less bright and shiny.

It's so incredibly easy, to do what Fred Rogers did. To listen, to be there, to say: I like you, just as exactly as you are. To say, with words and actions: I care about you, because you're you, you're a person who is unlike anyone else in this world world.

To say, and mean it, that You make every day a special day, by just your being you.

and that's why i'm writing my dissertation.

1 comment:

Library Diva said...

That's beautiful. I like to think I do a little of that in my own work at the paper. When I was covering the musicals last year, as I drove away from talking with my first group of kids, I was struck by the powerful realization that what I was going to write would go up on each of their bedroom walls. It'd be mailed to their aunts and uncles that live outside of our coverage area. And that they'd remember talking to me for the rest of their lives, even if they completed the paperwork to change their major from theater to accounting midway through the first semester. For that moment, they were James Earl Jones or Meryl Streep and I was the theater critic from the New Yorker.

I always try to keep that in mind when I cover stuff, what a big deal it is to the person I'm writing about, even if it's not something I find particularly interesting, one of our readers will see it and get something out of it. Maybe they'll get angry, maybe they'll get inspired, or maybe they'll just know to avoid Wehrle Drive for a few weeks until the construction is done. Keeps me going.