I was about five years old when I wrote my first fan letter. It was the 1980s, but it wasn’t addressed to a pop star of the day like Madonna or Cyndi Lauper.
It was to Fred Rogers — the host of PBS’ “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” my favorite show at the time.
What was I dying to tell him? I wrote about how much I loved watching his show. I told him about myself and how I was in a wheelchair, having been born with a rare genetic bone and muscular disorder.
To my surprise, he wrote back, telling me how nice it was to hear from me. He also sent me a book about a boy in a wheelchair. When I got that package in the mail, I felt like I’d just won the lottery. I’ll never forget it.
That was 30 years ago, Fred Rogers died in 2003, and episodes of the show stopped airing in 2008. But Rogers’ compassion and kindness have stayed with me ever since. I smile every time I think about it. Why? Because pure, unselfish kindness seems so rare these days.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, I’ve been thinking a lot about his legacy and how lost kids like me would have been without it. The show’s kind of gentle, educational programming could so easily be cut down without the support of federal dollars. And President Trump’s proposed 2019 budget would eliminate all federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which supplies money to both PBS and NPR. This move would have disastrous consequences, according to CPB president Patricia Harrison. In 2016, for instance, federal appropriations accounted for most of the agency’s revenues.
I grew up with the wonders of public television. Shows like “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” not only entertained me, but were also the building blocks of my education and the cornerstone of my childhood, teaching me all about numbers and spelling and even life skills like manners and how to make friends. And because of my disability, I couldn’t get around as easily as the other kids my age, so at times, those shows were literally my window to the world. I may not have been able to climb on the playground equipment, but I sang along to Mister Rogers’ opening song and hung out with Lady Elaine Fairchilde.
The world desperately needs more of Fred Rogers’ genuine kindness.
That’s why I was overjoyed at the news that Tom Hanks is set to star as Rogers in the upcoming biopic called “You Are My Friend,” which director Marielle Heller described to “Variety” as a “message of kindness” and an “exploration of the human spirit” that she hopes will be “an antidote to our very fractured culture.”
Biopics are certainly nothing new; well-known figures, from celebrities to politicians, have had their lives immortalized on the big and small screens. While telling and informative, these biopics are usually fun glimpses into the subject’s life. A way to pull back the curtain on the fascinating life of a public figure.
But the Mister Rogers biopic? Somehow, this one feels different. There’s a palpable urgency to its message, especially in light of the Trump administration’s recent threats to the future of public media.
“There is no viable substitute for federal funding that ensures Americans have universal access to public media’s educational and informational programming and services,” Harrison said in a statement. “The elimination of federal funding to CPB would initially devastate and ultimately destroy public media’s role in early childhood education, public safety, connecting citizens to our history, and promoting civil discussions — all for Americans in both rural and urban communities.”
For me, Harrison is more right than even she might know. As a writer, I spend my days analyzing, making connections and exploring my feelings — all skills I learned from Mister Rogers all those years ago. Like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was then, writing has now become my window to the world, a way to make sense of things, and there’s such a freedom in that. A freedom despite my disability. There are no obstacles when I’m writing, no hurdles to jump over and nothing to hold me back. I’m not defined by anything, least of which, my disability.
Maybe all this is why I’m so scared of these kinds of programs going off the air. It’s so important that the next generation have these positive influences in their lives. These days, kids have YouTube and video games on their iPads. Can you imagine a world where those types of things are the only big influences, the only things that help shape people into who they become? Thankfully, “Sesame Street” is still on the air, as well as other shows like “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” (itself an animated spin-off of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”) and “Thomas and Friends,” but nothing has had the same longevity or cultural influence as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He was such a powerful role model for me growing up and the new generation needs that kind of role model now more than ever.
The simple kindness of a stranger can last a lifetime. Thanks to Mister Rogers, I’m living proof of that. I’m reminded every day that one person does have the power to make the world a better place, and we owe it to the next generation to ensure they know that sort of kindness too.