Thursday, July 02, 2009

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

I have always wanted to have a neighbor
Just like you!
I’ve always wanted to live in a
Neighborhood with you.
So let’s make the most of this beautiful day;
Since we’re together we might as well say.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?

When Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted in 1968, the day before I turned 6-years-old, I was already a kindergartner, on the upper edge of the show’s wheelhouse demographic. I had been a Captain Kangaroo kid, but this new guy on the TV after school drew my attention and I watched him during those first couple of seasons.

I loved the Neighborhood of Make Believe best, of course. The little electric trolley would take you through the tunnel and into the puppet land of King Friday, Henrietta (“Meow, meow”) Pussycat, Donkey Hodie, and the always forgiven antagonist, Lady Elaine Fairchild. I’d usually watch with Sam, my 20-month younger brother.

I was re-introduced to the series in the mid-70’s when my 7-year younger sister watched it. Mister Rogers still sang, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? at the top of the show, while attiring himself in cardigan and sneakers. He still fed his fish. He still had sincere conversations directly with his audience, addressed emotions frankly, and made you feel like you really mattered. (The only thing that had changed was he’d replaced the song Tomorrow with It’s Such A Good Feeling at the end of the show.)

I make no secret of my admiration for Mister Rogers, an opinion based not least of all upon his steadfast consistency. You could count on your half hour in the neighborhood. Mister Rogers was always happy to see you, he always sang with you, he took your feelings seriously, and he stayed on schedule. As the longest running program in PBS history, for 895 episodes, over the course of over 40 years, he did those things in which he most deeply believed.

“I’m happy to see you”
Deep within us – no matter who we are – there lives a feeling of wanting to be lovable, of wanting to be the kind of person that others like to be with. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.

I’ve been greeting children at Woodland Park with, “I’m happy to see you,” since the first day of my first year teaching. It isn’t something I thought about in advance. It just came to me upon the arrival of my very first student. It came to me because it was true – I really was happy that my first student had arrived! And it remains true today as I greet the children. I am happy to see each of them.

We all, always, wherever we go, want to be warmly welcomed. I was always welcome in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Whether I was 6 or 10, boy or girl, wild or quiet, willing or unwilling, Mr. Rogers made it clear that rejection was impossible. That is how I want the children to feel each morning as they come through the door and find me waiting there.

I often think that if this feeling were the only thing a child takes away from Woodland Park, it would be enough.

Music is the one art we all have inside. We may not be able to play an instrument, but we can sing along or clap or tap our feet. Have you ever seen a baby bouncing up and down in the crib in time to some music? When you think of it, some of that baby’s first messages from his or her parents may have been lullabies, or at least the music of their speaking voices. All of us have had the experience of hearing a tune from childhood and having that melody evoke a memory or a feeling. The music we hear early on tends to stay with us all our lives.

At Woodland Park, we sing the same songs, over and over, year after year. I tell myself that change is good, and I sincerely try to add 2-3 new songs every year, but it’s the old songs, in a very real sense, that form the foundation of our community: Jump Jim Joe, Uncle Jessie, The Baby Chant . . . We sing them at Circle Time, we sing them as we play, we make up new verses to make them fit our day.

Mister Rogers’ neighborhood was a place to sing. Songs like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and It’s Such a Good Feeling were songs we sang over and over, year after year, their messages of undying friendship and sunrise optimism framed a show in which it was as natural to sing as to speak. To this day I find myself humming these songs.

Our Feelings
All our lives, we rework the things from our childhood, like feeling good about ourselves, managing our angry feelings, being able to say good-bye to people we love.

People have said, “Don’t cry” to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, “I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don’t cry.” I’d rather have them say, “Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.”

There is no “should” or “should not” when it comes to having feelings. They’re part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings.

Mister Rogers spoke and sang constantly about feelings, without judgment and largely without trying to offer any advice. Just talking about emotions was enough.

Our emotions come upon us for whatever reason and we must feel them. We want our children to learn that there are no bad feelings, no shameful feelings. Our emotions are real and true and part of us. Only we know how we feel. As a parent, it’s hard not to hear my daughter’s cries or tantrums as pleas for help and that I must somehow “fix” the problem. But feelings are not problems and they will never be fixed. They must run their course.

When a child is frustrated, sad or angry, when his emotions overwhelm him, our first job is to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself or others. Beyond that our role is to sit beside him and hold or stroke him if he’ll allow it. This is how we teach about feelings.

Discipline is a teaching-learning kind of relationship as the similarity of the word disciple suggests. By helping our children learn to be self-disciplined, we are also helping them learn how to become independent of us as, sooner or later, they must. And we are helping them learn how to be loving parents to children of their own.

A visit to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was always a reliable, predictable, disciplined experience. There were the songs, the stoplight, and the visits to Make Believe. And Mister Rogers was always the same as well: warm, earnest, loving.

By the time children come to Woodland Park, they are already experts on their own home and family. They know the daily rituals and routines. They have figured out where things go, when to do things, and how far they can push the boundaries. Mom and Dad too, with all their emotional complexity, are as reliable as the rising sun. Preschool is their first regular foray into the larger world and we want them develop the same kind of trust and comfort as they have at home.

Sticking to our daily schedule is where it all begins. There is flexibility, of course, within our schedule, but the framework stays the same, day after day, year after year. Within a few weeks of the start of school, 2-year-olds begin informing me that it’s “clean up time” and they’re usually right to within a few minutes. Graduates who return to visit for a day, and who have since learned the new routines of their new schools, always fall confidently and joyfully into the old, familiar routines of preschool.

It’s all about building trust. It’s impossible to develop confidence or self-discipline in a world that is unpredictable.

It's Such A Good Feeling
I will never be Mister Rogers. Where he was quiet and gentle, I tend toward boisterous. Where he was a straight-arrow, I’m a very silly man. But I like to think that I bring a part of him into the classroom every day. I strive to make sure each child knows that I want her to be my neighbor. I sing, often badly, but I sing the songs we know. We let our feelings flourish, and try get on with our life of doing. And we try to do this within our four-walls of consistency and comfort – a place where each child can confidently thrive.

That, I hope, is our neighborhood.

It's such a good feeling to know you're alive.
It's such a happy feeling: You're growing inside.
And when you wake up ready to say,
'I think I'll make a snappy new day.'
It's such a good feeling, a very good feeling,
The feeling you know that we're friends.

And I'll be back
When the day is new
And I'll have more ideas for you.
And you'll have things you'll want to talk about.
I will too.


Amanda said...

I remember focusing on the parts when he changed into his sweater at the beginning of each show.

I don't think I appreciated how reassuring routine can be until I had Thomas. Kids aren't the only ones who find the routine of our school soothing, I do too.

Teacher Tom said...

Goethe has a great line (I think it comes from the Sorrows of Werther) that translates as: "It is within limitations that he first shows himself a genius."

We have to fully explore the "box" before it's possible to think outside of it.

Saya said...

I am originally from Okinawa, Japan. I got married to an American man and moved into this country. One of the first TV show I start watching with my daughter (she was 4 then) and my son (he was just a newborn) was Mr. Rogers neighborhood. I still can sing all of the songs he sang! I still remember, I cried when he was talking about fear and insecurity in one of the episode, from some sense of relief. (I was going through some life changing, culture shocking experiences)

I still sing some of his songs like "it's such a good feeling" to the children, and I too, greet the children with "I am very happy to see you."

I miss that great program.

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