ArticleMarch 20th, 2018
Column: How Mr. Rogers reminds me of my purpose as an educator and fatherArts & CultureEducation
American educator and television personality Fred Rogers of the television series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” circa the 1980s. Photo by Fotos International/Courtesy of Getty Images
This piece is dedicated to the loving memory and legacy of Mr. Fred Rogers, who was born 90 years ago today on March 20, 1928. I also dedicate this to mothers and fathers everywhere who heroically defeat the nightmares of their children. — Sean Gaillard, middle school principal
All of the clichés associated with nightmares plagued me during my pre-school and kindergarten years. I literally tossed and turned in addition to waking up screaming. I was blessed to have my mom and dad nearby, willing to chase monsters away or to say a little prayer with me to soothe my frayed nerves.
During one particular series of nightmares, I was unwilling to go back to sleep. My mother had attempted every tried and true trick with me and nothing seemed to work, that is until she decided to turn on our record player. It was a song by Mr. Rogers called a “A Place of Our Own,” from his PBS series which I watched everyday. I was his neighbor and he treated me with kindness, respect and love.
The record of Mr. Rogers’ soothing voice and songs of affirmation and love did the trick for me as a child. The nightmares soon dissipated and I was able to sleep peacefully. Mom had saved my world again.
Mr. Rogers and I had gone on many adventures together to the “Neighborhood of Make Believe.” I learned how crayons were manufactured through the magic of the pre-You Tube resource that was “Picture Picture.” I developed an appreciation for Jazz due to the melodic stylings of the John Costa Trio providing a hip soundtrack for our television adventures. All were invited in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. You could be of any color, race, religion, gender, background and there would be no judgment. The Neighborhood was a vision of the way the world needed to be: “A Place of Our Own” where we echoed the better angels of human nature for all.
Fast forward to my time as young high school English teacher in the throes of a being a newlywed. I had found the love of my life, Deb, and we were young teachers bent on teaching all the children of the world. (We still are, by the way.) My wife and I suffered a miscarriage during her first pregnancy. I felt helpless. My wife was suffering, and I was desperate to take the pain away from her. Later that night, I had a dream I was walking through the Neighborhood of Make-Believe with Mr. Rogers. He was comforting me. In the distance, I noticed my father. He beckoned toward me and picked me up in his arms. The world made sense again. I was at peace.
A few years later, I was driving home from school exhausted and dejected. For whatever reason the day was rough and I was questioning the universe and my choice of employment. Deb and I were now the proud parents of a newborn daughter. I staggered home to pick up a copy of the newspaper and noticed the news: Mr. Rogers was retiring. He wanted to take time to relax and focus on other projects. I also noticed that Mr. Rogers was a devoted letter writer and wanted to explore correspondence via e-mail.
I remember tossing the newspaper aside and stepping over to our home computer. My fingers formed words on the keyboard to a man whom I never met but his presence had been with me for most of my life. I wanted to thank Mr. Rogers for his selfless career of accepting others and promoting the power of imagination.
That didn’t happen. I remember crying as I wrote because I simply thanked him for helping me get rid of my nightmares. I shared with him how I was now a father, husband and teacher. I thanked him for inspiring me to be the best in all of three of those important roles. Most importantly, I thanked Mr. Rogers for being a profound influence in my life, and how I hoped to do his legacy justice. I shared with him how Deb and I would tell our baby daughter, “You are special,” one of the cornerstones of Mr. Rogers’ message of love and understanding. I remember signing it, “Your friend, Sean.”
Within hours, I got a reply back from Mr. Fred Rogers. It was my hero taking the time to read my thoughts and respond in a sincere, loving way. As he thanked me for my kind words, Mr. Rogers shared his appreciation of the strengths I had as a person. Most importantly, he told me that my daughter was lucky to have a father like me. Here was a man whom I never met giving me the honor of such a deep compliment. The email is something I still cherish today. I occasionally re-read it when I need a little reminder of my purpose.
This upcoming year marks many commemorations for Mr. Rogers due to the 50th Anniversary of the airing his beloved television show. We have a United States Postal Stamp, an upcoming documentary and even a biopic starring Tom Hanks all carefully etched with dignity and love for the audience.
The legacy of Mr. Rogers continues to live on in repeated viewings of his Neighborhood and acclaimed spinoffs like “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”
I remember when I first learned of Mr. Rogers’ passing a few years after I received that e-mail from him. I was teaching at Bedford High School in Massachusetts and hurriedly preparing for class in the library. I accidentally bumped into a colleague who was listlessly wandering around the stacks. Noticing the sadness in his face, I asked him what was the matter. His words are eternally carved in the soundtrack of my wife, “Mr. Rogers died today, Sean. We lost the greatest educator of the 20th Century and we haven’t done a doggone thing.”
I paused in stunned silence. What I would like to say is that I rushed back to class and took time for a moving tribute of Mr. Rogers for my students. But I was at a loss for any kind of action, and I simply carried on with the day.
My reaction reminded me of other times that I’ve stumbled. It made me miss that trolley ride to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
It reminded me of the song, “Many Ways to Say I Love You” which is on side two of “A Place of Our Own.” A song I used to sing to my three daughters when they were babies. A song I used to fall asleep to when I was a boy terrified that the world was going to end:
There are many ways to say I love you.
Just by being there when things are sad and scary.
Just by being there, being there, being there to say I love you.
You’ll find many ways to say I love you.
You’ll find many ways to say I love you.
You’ll find many ways to understand what love is.
Sean Gaillard is the principal of Lexington Middle School in Lexington, North Carolina. His first book is The Pepper Effect: Lessons from The Beatles for The Schoolhouse (June 2018 release, Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.). Sean resides in North Carolina with his wife and their daughters. Follow Sean on Twitter @smgaillard and blog at principallinernotes.wordpress.com.
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