Remembering Your Loved Ones

By OWEN MASON-HILL

This weekend, the  Middlebury campus was graced by the iconic combination of Fred Rogers and François Clemmons, a duo that educated an entire generation of children. The Hirschfield International Film Series brought Academy Award winning director Morgan Neville’s Fred Rogers biopic, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” to Middlebury, along with a special Q&A with former actor and Middlebury teacher François Clemmons. In this documentary, Neville pairs together first hand anecdotes from those closest to Rogers with behind the scenes footage of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the television show that helped Rogers become a household name.

Throughout his career, Fred Rogers spread messages of love, compassion and understanding to America’s children. He fought for what he believed in withsong rather than violence In one instance, which the film touches upon, Rogers goes before the U.S. Senate to testify on behalf of public broadcasting, in order to secure the $20 million that President Richard  Nixon sought to reallocate. In what seemed a losing battle, Rogers simply sat in front of the microphone and spoke the words of one of his songs on control and anger. After he was finished, Senator John Pastore defied expectation and said, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.” This was the power of Rogers that often went overlooked. He inhabited a soft-spoken courage that allowed him to turn a low-budget children’s program into a national phenomenon that taught children how to handle the complex emotions of life.

It is no accident that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” stayed on air for 33 years and aired over 900 episodes. Rogers’ genius came from his remarkable and revolutionary understanding of children. Being an overweight child in his adolescence, Rogers was no stranger to bullying and strove to provide children with the much needed support and compassion that he lacked during his early years. Through the combination of his kind smile and the array of puppets he portrayed, Rogers was able to strike at the heart of his audience, tacking problems as simple as being angry, to as complex and difficult as the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Children’s emotions are just as complex as those of adults; they just need someone like Mister Rogers to tell them that it is normal to feel the way they do and that there are ways to deal with their issues. The film encapsulates these ideals perfectly,  capturing the true genius of Rogers and allowing the audience to understand fully how revolutionary a thinker he was.

In my opinion this film is one of the best of the year. It is a must-see for those who tuned into “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as a child as well as for those who didn’t. This film allows the audience to step inside the world Rogers created, a world birthed from a combination of Rogers’ mind and reality. This film encapsulates the emotional capacity of Rogers and reaches its hand out from the screen and touches its audience’s heart. Everyone can appreciate this film, and I think that it should be mandatory viewing. As Rogers remarks, everyone needs to hear that they are special, that they are perfect just for existing and don’t ever need to change. Some may think that this created an entitled generation, but that is just a misuse of Rogers’ philosophy. To truly understand this film is to love yourself and your neighbor, equally.

After the film was over, François Clemmons got up from his seat in the theater and walked onto the stage, opening the forum for questions from the audience. What resonated throughout his speaking was the fact that Rogers completely embodied the kind generous spirit that characterized his show. Clemmons spoke of how, even though Rogers would begin each episode by changing into the iconic sweater and lacing up his sneakers, he never had to change to become ‘Mister Rogers’ — he acted as he lived. Rogers became the paternal figure Clemmons had lacked in his life and never failed to be there for him. When Clemmons was sick, Roger would show up at his door. When Clemmons would sing, Rogers would sit in the front row to listen. This unending, unconditional love permeated Rogers’ life and also helped  Clemmons become who he is today.

Though Rogers died in 2003, his kind spirit and generous soul can never be stopped. During his time at Middlebury, Clemmons sought to create a community in the vision of Rogers. At Thanksgiving, Clemmons would not only host a dinner for the students who couldn’t return home, he would host a dinner on Friday,Saturday and Sunday, and when it was time to leave, he would ensure that each student left with a bag full of leftovers. After the tragedy of September 11, Clemmons found himself standing on Battell Beach, singing. Clemmons had lived in New York for over 25 years, and the events had shaken him to his core. Though he started singing alone, Clemmons soon found himself surrounded by his fellow Middlebury community members, all singing and partaking in mourning. This is the kind of community that Rogers and Clemmons want, a community that shares in happiness and sorrow. A community built on the pillars of fellowship and kindness.

The film remarked on Rogers’s fondness of silence, and, as Rogers would do in every one of his speeches, allowed its interviewees as well as the audience to sit in pure silence for a full minute. Thus we sat, in a crowded room on a Saturday evening, surrounded by our parents and our brothers and our sisters. Mr. Rogers asked us to remember those whom we have loved and this who have loved us. As I sat there next to my mother, I couldn’t help but shed a tear, reminiscing on the people I had to leave behind on my journey to Middlebury, the people who showed me unconditional support and affection throughout my life, the people who guided me and protected me. This film has the power to do that, the power to make you remember what is essential in life, or more specifically who is essential in life.