The year — 1968 — wasn’t even halfway over by the time Kennedy was assassinated, a shocking event in a year of stunning calamity. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed only weeks before. Cities burned. The nation was gripped by confusion and dread.
But 1968 was also the birth of something remarkable — “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” a public television show hosted by an ordained minister who spoke directly to children, turning his Neighborhood of Make-Believe into a village of empathy, knowledge and wonder.
In taking on Kennedy’s death, Mister Rogers, the subject of a new documentary opening Friday, became for children and parents a soothing voice of reason and calm. He gently guided and consoled a grieving nation, a job he took on again and again, right up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
His approach was simple: Listen.
“When children bring up something frightening,” he said in a public message later in life, “it’s helpful right away to ask them what they know about it. We often find that their fantasies are very different from the actual truth. What children probably need to hear most from us adults is that they can talk with us about anything and that we will do all we can to keep them safe in any scary time.”
Of course, he added, “I’m always glad to be your neighbor.”
The neighbor turned up one afternoon in the early 1980s following the assassination of John Lennon, the attempted murder of President Ronald Reagan, and a series of child murders in Atlanta. Wearing his quintessential cardigan sweater, Rogers looked into homes around the country and said:
This program is not for young children to watch alone. When children see and hear about frightening things it’s best for them to have an adult close by, somebody who loves them and can put their arm around them. So please get a grown-up that you love to watch this program with you because we’re going to talk about some sad and scary things. … Well, the people who are doing these terrible things are making a lot of other people sad and angry but when we get sad and angry, you and I, we know what to do with our feelings so we don’t have to hurt other people. When I was a boy and I would hear about something scary somebody getting badly hurt or something like that I’d ask my parents or my grandparents about it and they would usually tell me how they felt about it.
Sad, of course. Upset.
But there was something his mother advised, a phrase that is tweeted to this day following tragic events: Find people who are helping.
My mother would try to find out who was helping the person who got hurt. “Always look for the people who are helping,” she’d tell us. “You’ll always find somebody who’s trying to help.” So even today when I read the newspaper and see the news on television I look for the people who were trying to help. … One of the most important parts of growing up is learning to talk and play about our feelings. Some people wonder if Mister Rogers ever gets angry. Of course I do, especially when I hear about people hurting other people or when somebody hurts me.”
For Mister Rogers, his approach to dealing with tragedy began with Bobby Kennedy’s death. He stayed up the night before the funeral working on a script. The episode, only parts of which survive online, was described in an email to a Mister Rogers blogger — they exist, really — by a reader who watched it at a television archive in California:
The program takes place in Mr. Rogers’ TV house, as usual, but the presentation is very different from a typical episode. There is no actual title for the program given at any time. The show simply fades in to Mr. Rogers’ house, and Mr. Rogers is already there. He wears a suit through the whole program, never changing into a sweater and sneakers. The most drastic change in presentation is that even though there are several Make-Believe segments and singing in this program, the language Mr. Rogers uses and the topics he discusses clearly demonstrate that he’s gearing this episode toward adults, not children. And what I find most interesting about this special is that — at least to my eye — Mr. Rogers is visibly nervous through most of the program. He fidgets and looks for things to do with his hands: sitting near a plant and twisting the petals on a flower, scratching a spot on the wall next to him for at least a solid minute while he speaks, and pushing a toy truck back and forth.
The truck was obviously there for a good reason, the e-mailer writes:
He shows a toy truck and illustrates how a child pushes a truck back and forth and sometimes hides a toy behind another object, just to “find” it himself immediately. A child might actually be doing these things to ponder loss, the need to find something that’s missing, or coping with the idea of leaving a place and coming back. A child’s play is very complex in this way …
The scene that survives online is astonishing in its simplicity and depth.
In the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Daniel is talking to Lady Aberlin. He gives her a balloon, which she promptly blows up. Then she releases the air. Daniel inquires about where the air went. Lady Aberlin explains that the air goes all around.
People are different, though, she says. Their air goes out and then comes right back in.
And then Daniel says it: “What does assassination mean?”
“Have you heard that word a lot today?” Lady Aberlin asks.
“Yes,” Daniel says, “and I didn’t know what it meant.”
“Well,” Lady Aberlin explains, “it means somebody getting killed in a sort of surprise way.”
“That’s what happened, you know,” Daniel says. “That man killed that other man.”
Lady Aberlin asks if Daniel would like to come to a picnic with her.
“I don’t feel much like a picnic today,” Daniel says, to which Lady Aberlin replies, “I can understand that when you feel sad sometimes you don’t feel like a picnic.”
Then Mister Rogers appears on screen.
He said Lady Aberlin’s way of coping was to go off to a picnic. That wasn’t for Daniel. Families, Mister Roger’s said, should cope with tragedy in whatever way feels right. Maybe that’s watching Kennedy’s funeral as a family. For others, a walk along a river. Some kids just want a strong arm around them.
“I always say to the children, ‘You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you, and you have.’ I care deeply about you and your families. I hope you know that. G’bye.”
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