Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Degree To Which You Are Free

I've long held Mr. Rogers up in front of me as a sort of lantern, not just in my work with children, but while going through the dark parts of life in general. He was not the first person to understand the emotional lives of children, but no one has ever been able to speak so well about the inner child, communicating great truths clearly and simply. 

What many people don't know about him is that he started as a songwriter. It was as a young man with a collection of songs in hand that he first set out to make his mark in the world, and it was his songs that tied his television program together, from the warm embrace of "Won't You Be My Neighbor" through the fond farewell of "It's Such A Good Feeling," and everything in between. Lately, I've been thinking about him in the tradition of American singer/songwriter/storytellers, like the great Woody Guthrie. He wasn't, of course, a troubadour type traveling from town to town. Television anchored him, but when he invited us into his neighborhood each afternoon, you knew you were going to enjoy a half hour of conversation, stories, and songs that both entertained and edified. 

And like all the great ones, the gentle, peaceful, loving Mr. Rogers tried to instill in his audience a sense of our individual power in a world that can sometimes seem overwhelming. He taught a generation of young children, now adults in the prime of life, that it isn't just okay to be yourself, but necessary.

I'm still myself,
I'm still myself,
I'm still myself inside.
(from "I'm Still Myself Inside)

What a strong place to stand in the world, knowing that however the world changes, whatever is happening, there is still that core of us that remains "myself." What a radical notion, in fact, almost defiant, that powerful statement: "I'm still myself." To a child, to a person who has spent his entire life surrounded by people bent on changing you, dressing you in clothes you do not choose, feeding you food you do not like, making you go here and there on a schedule over which you have no control, teaching you things about which you do not care, this is almost a subversive concept. 

Or what about this from "What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel?"

I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish.
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there's something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.

We cannot control our emotions, but we are responsible for who we are and how we behave. We own not only those feelings, but how we respond to those feelings as well. What a remarkable concept to share with young children: what a sense of control it gives us to know that these emotions are not inflicted upon us, but are rather ours to own and ours alone.

If you've got a plan,
Now's the time to try it.
If you've got an airplane,
Fly it.
This is just the day.
It's the day for seeing all there is to see.
It's the day for being just you, just me.
(from "This Is Just The Day")

Think what an amazing concept this is, especially to a child growing up in an era when "asking permission" was paramount. Instead, Mr. Rogers tells children, seize the day, now, "this is just the day."

You are the only one like you.
(from "You Are Special") 

These words from the non-threatening Mr. Rogers, sung in his gentle voice, broadcast to millions of us, form the bedrock of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. His songs are about feelings, yes, but at bottom, each of them are about being true to ourselves, being responsible for ourselves, and being ultimately the boss of ourselves. If these were not radical notions to adults, they certainly were to us children being raised by parents who had come of age during a time of suburban conformity and "the good company man."

I doubt very much that Mr. Rogers set out to teach these particular skills or this particular mindset, but in doing what he did, in understanding children and speaking directly to that "myself inside," he was helping to lay the groundwork for what it takes to be free.

I'm learning to sing a sad song when I'm sad.
I'm learning to say I'm angry when I'm very mad.
I'm learning to shout, I'm getting it out.
I'm happy learning exactly how I feel inside of me.
I'm learning to know the truth.
I'm learning to tell the truth.
Discovering truth will make me free.
(from "The Truth Will Make Me Free")

And when they're all grown up, they'll understand with their souls the singer/songwriter/storytellers who travel with us and among us, reminding us what it takes to be an American:

The state can't give you freedom, and the state can't take it away. You're born with it, like your eyes, like you ears. Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free. ~Utah Phillips

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Karen said...

Hear, hear. I often hear Fred Rogers' voice inside my head... little phrases pop up at random moments while I am working with kids. The four year-old worrier might inspire "you can never go down the drain...", the child struggling with impulse control: "I can stop when I want to.." But it takes a lot of patience to watch Mr. Rogers for a child today. Not much of what they see on the screen invites them to slow down and take their time while stretching their thinking!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Rogers helped me to become a better parent and teacher. While I watched him as a child, I think I only really began to understand as I watched him with my own children. His show came on just before lunchtime and I would insist that we take a break and watch together. Then we would talk over lunchtime about what he said and what it might mean to them and to us as a family. It was the perfect time of day to take a breath, slow down and reflect together.
People say he wasn't "exciting" enough to engage children, but it was precisely this gentleness that made his message work. Instead of talking "at" children, he talked to them, seriously, and about serious subjects in a respectful and age-appropriate manner.

Mary said...

I love Mr. Rogers, but I have found myself struggling for a couple of days thinking about your characterization of childhood in your quote: "To a child, to a person who has spent his entire life surrounded by people bent on changing you, dressing you in clothes you do not choose, feeding you food you do not like, making you go here and there on a schedule over which you have no control, teaching you things about which you do not care, this is almost a subversive concept. " To me this seems like a very one-sided and too pessimistic characterization of childhood. Childhood is a land of extremes, and surely there is much suffering but a lot of joy as well. As a child you can't escape authority, but there is also the freedom from worry about providing for yourself. I think that the whole concept of self is something that takes over when you are worrying about your ego, and I find children so refreshing because they are so authentic, because they are too busy being in the moment to worry about how they are projecting themselves to the world. Sometimes my child likes his clothes, sometimes he doesn't, sometimes he loves his food, sometimes he doesn't. I think his sense of freedom right now comes from a strong attachment to his family, which gives him a sense of safety to go explore the world. This is different than the freedom to make every little choice for himself, which paradoxically would make him more insecure since he wouldn't feel taken care of.

Teacher Tom said...

Nicely said, Mary . . . I do have a tendency sometimes toward stridency, which causes me to overstate my case. Your point is well taken.