I don’t remember much of my high-school French, with one notable exception. A simple little song that I translated for a silly little sketch, one where I knew that even if I didn’t have the words quite right, the tune would be unmistakable:
C’est un jour ravissant dans le voisinage,
C’est un jour ravissant pour un voisin …
It was, indeed, a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Especially when you realized your classmates would have Fred Rogers’ signature song in their head for the next three class periods.
It’s now officially been 50 years since Mr. Rogers first appeared on a television screen. Looking back, it’s kind of a marvel he was ever there at all.
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood had no boisterous gags or bellowed punch lines. Instead, it had a quiet man putting on a cardigan and welcoming friends to his home.
The show had no animation or state-of-the-art tech. It got by with a trolley, a traffic light, and a collection of hand puppets that interacted with only one live actor – a mailman – and that, rarely.
And in an age where even the most educational of shows is developed with an eye to the toy budget, the biggest thing Mr. Rogers sold was respect.
He didn’t talk down to children. He didn’t avoid hard subjects like divorce, or war, or the death of a goldfish. But he also made it clear that the world need not be a scary place, and that it never had to be faced alone.
“You know, I think everybody longs to be loved, and longs to know that he or she is loveable,” he once said in a documentary. “And consequently, the greatest thing we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”
But that was then and this is now, right?
For most of us, it’s been a long time since we heard the dulcet tones of Mr. Rogers’ sleepy voice, soothing and reassuring and with a dozen small questions in every sentence. We’ve gotten used to a scarier world. A dangerous and frightening one where no one seems particularly neighborly. A world where it’s harder to tell what’s real and what belongs to the Land of Make-Believe.
Oh, putting on sneakers and singing about how you won’t fall down the drain is fine for kids, we tell ourselves. But surely we’ve outgrown all that. It’s time to face a bruising, bustling world that gives you 24-hour stimulation and where “special” is just one more demographic to be measured, analyzed, and marketed. Right?
And yet … and yet.
The world was a chaotic place in 1968, too. The headlines screamed of assassination, war, and protest; of a political process that seemed to be turning meaner by the day; of a world that seemed to grow increasingly hopeless.
That was the world in which the Neighborhood first began.
To meet such a world with quiet tones and pleasant songs might seem an act of futility. But that was only the stage dressing. The core was always the same. To hope. To learn. To respect. To care. To look out for each other. And especially to trust that everyone had value – including yourself.
Those are still the tools that can light a world today, whatever form they take. Those are still the essentials that must be wielded before any change for the better can take place. We remember them in the hands of a soft-spoken Presbyterian minister, but they have been held by many others.
Workers and teachers.
Rescuers and friends.
A myriad of “helpers” from every walk of life – the very thing that Fred Rogers’ mom once told him to look for in scary times. “Look for the helpers.”
Their actions may be as simple as welcoming a new face to town. They may be as earth-shattering as giving their life to save students in danger.
Large and small, these are the neighbors of today.
And so long as we continue to seek them out, and strengthen their number, and teach their lessons anew, we can again make it a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Won’t you be my neighbor?