I’m writing these words thanks in part to Mister Rogers. He taught me English.
As a little girl sitting in the backroom of my parents’ fledgling restaurant, I was mesmerized by this cardigan-wearing man on TV who lovingly opened a bright new world to my young mind.
Many adults consider Mister Rogers to be one of their first teachers. Fewer know about the level of intention Fred Rogers brought to his shows. Oscar winner Morgan Neville’s recently released documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” reveals the complexities of this singular figure in American popular culture: an ordained minister turned television star who shunned wacky antics in favor of simple sets and profound messages.
Mister Rogers’s conviction in the power that television wielded motivated his life’s work. “What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become,” he says within the first few minutes of the documentary.
That was true for countless children who watched him and have their own Mister Rogers stories, including me.
I didn’t speak English until sometime after my fourth birthday. I was born in the United States, and my parents, who had immigrated from Iran, wanted me to know the languages of both my birth country and theirs.
But years before I came into the picture, a teacher cautioned my mom against teaching English to my older brother. He’ll pick up on your accent and grammar tics, went the reasoning, and he’ll learn English in school, from friends, from TV. And he did.
Many non-English speakers pick up the language through television. My mom learned to read and write English in college, which she augmented with colloquial English gleaned from “Sanford and Son” and “Three’s Company” episodes. Not exactly age-appropriate material for a 4-year-old girl.
Thank goodness for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“I wanted you to watch something good,” my mom explains now. “Something safe for you.”
She’d watch along with me at home, seeing how he’d cover the basics of counting and the alphabet. And after my dad opened his first restaurant — an American Dream kind of risk — the Mister Rogers lessons continued. As my parents prepared food in the restaurant kitchen, I sat a few feet away in the “office” (a section of the hallway cordoned off with a curtain) and watched PBS on a small, wooden-paneled TV set.
I especially liked the portion of the show in which he looked directly into the camera and went through his routine. It had a soothing quality. He spoke gently and acted with no sense of urgency. I knew what to expect.
One of the guiding principles behind Rogers’s approach, I learned from watching “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” is that the inner emotional lives of children are every bit as complex and valid as those of adults.
I vividly remember the only day I spent at day care: Everyone made noises, but they made no sense. It’s a feeling that adults know well, that of being lonely despite being surrounded by people.
Thinking back, there’s no way I could have understood most of what Mister Rogers said, especially in the beginning. But I don’t remember ever feeling confused by him. (Except when he put on sneakers to wear inside the house. In my Persian household, shoes were an outside-only kind of thing.)
My young mind acted like a sponge, soaking up all of his words. After I enrolled in school, it took just a few weeks for me to fluently speak the language that would come to define the rest of my life.
At times during his career, Fred Rogers wondered whether his approach and message that everyone is worthy could stand a chance against the increasing violence and chaos that flooded television.
I’d eventually watch the kind of TV that Mister Rogers probably lamented. But that didn’t erase what “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” had done for me. He helped a confused non-English-speaking girl who would grow up to become a Washington Post journalist.
It’s a simple lesson, but I try to remember it in my own work. Yes, there’s so much bad out there. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to bring some good.