Mister Rogers and the Power of Words
Cole was four years old when he asked me, "Mom, is Mister Rogers real?" "Yes, he is!" I replied. "Can I write him a letter?" he inquired. I hesitated. I sent a letter to Shaun Cassidy when I was 9 years old. I'm still waiting for him to respond. I didn't want Cole to be crushed if Mister Rogers, a bona-fide celebrity in the 2-5 age bracket, didn't get back to him. Furthermore, Mister Rogers retired a year earlier from making his shows; they were all reruns by then. He was probably on an island somewhere sipping something from a coconut. Nonetheless, I said I would help Cole to write to Mister Rogers. I took comfort in assuming he most likely would forget about the letter anyway. After all, he was four, how much could he possibly remember?
Cole drew a picture, then told me what he wanted to say in his letter. I typed exactly what he dictated.
"Dear Mister Rogers,
I am writing to you with my mom's help, but these are my words. This is a card for you since my Mom told me you were real. I hope you like this picture. The rocket ship points up, just so you know. There is a guy in the rocket ship who is going to pick another guy up. My name is Cole and I am four and a HALF years old.
That's all! I love you!
Cole signed his name in pen at the bottom of the page in his large, just-learning-to-write block print. We sent it off the next day. "That's the last of that." I thought.
About eight weeks later, Cole received an envelope with "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" on the return address. He opened it and unfolded a two-page typed letter. Here is what it said:
It meant a lot to me that you wanted to write to me. It was kind of your mother to help you write the words for your message. You are fortunate to have a mother who cares so much about you and the things that are important to you. It was good, too, to see the way you wrote your name yourself at the bottom of your message. It takes a lot of practice to be able to write well. I'm proud of the many ways you're growing. I hope you're proud too.
Thank you for the wonderful picture you made. I liked the way you drew the rocket ship with the man in it going to pick up another man. I also enjoyed seeing the fine drawings you made above and below the rocket and the fancy way you decorated the paper and made all those circles with the hole punch. You certainly have interesting ideas for the things you make!
You said in your note that your mother told you I am real, and it's good that she talked with you about that. I am a real person, just the way you are a real person. There are some things on television that aren't real--the cartoons and the monsters and scary things like that, but I'm a real person. Your television set is a special way that you can see a picture of me and hear my voice. I can't look out through the television set to see or hear my television friends, but I thought about them whenever we were in the studio making our television visits.
Cole, you have many ways to let people know you're thinking about them and that you care about them. Sending a message to say "I love you" is one good way. What a caring neighbor you are! My way to say "I care about you" is to have television visits, and I'm glad to know you're watching.
Please tell your mother I said hello. Cole, you are special, and you make each day a special day -- just because you're you.
Your television friend,
Like Cole, Mister Rogers signed his name in pen.
Fred Rogers received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 40 honorary degrees, and a Peabody Award. He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame and was recognized in two congressional resolutions. He was ranked number 35 of the TV Guide's Fifty Greatest TV Stars of All Time. Several buildings and artworks in Pennsylvania are dedicated to his memory, and the Smithsonian Institution displays one of his trademark sweaters as a "Treasure of American History".*
And he wrote a two-page letter to my four-year-old son.
With the detailed description of his drawing, Mister Rogers let Cole know that his work was worthy of notice. He affirmed the thoughts and feelings Cole shared with him. He stated the truth about what is real and what is not without being condescending, frightening or flowery. Mister Rogers offered Cole comfort and dignity in his unmistakable, gentle cadence and use of words. (Plus he said I was a good mom, which pretty much carried me through the next sixteen years.)
Mister Rogers took the time to stop, see, and personally respond to Cole. It was an extraordinary act of kindness and humility from a man who could have had his staff send a form letter to just one more kid among the thousands while he sipped something fruity from a coconut. By sending that letter, he acknowledged that he knew Cole was in the world and that it made a difference. In short, Mister Rogers saw Cole. Who among us doesn't want to know that we are seen? Don't we all want to know that we matter?
Through the years, the impact of the letter has only grown. Cole is now an adult. He is wiser to the ways of the world. The letter stands in stark contrast to the rush and cynicism much of our culture offers. It is a gentle, genuine reminder that every person matters. It is a monument to the power of words. He's almost 21 and Cole loves Mister Rogers more than ever, because he understands the significance of that letter and how unusual it really is. When he was four, he didn't know that it's not typical to get a two page, personal letter from your hero. Now he does.
The letter is in a frame in our home. A couple of months ago, Cole and I had the opportunity to tell this story from a stage at a Mother-Son retreat where I was speaking. Cole read the letter to the audience. Everyone cried, including Cole and me.
Sometimes the world feels really fast and harsh. We are drowning in overstimulation, noise, and notifications from our phones. Thoughts and feelings tumble over one another in a race to reach our hearts and overwhelm us. It's all just too much sometimes, isn't it?
And yet, Cole's letter from Mister Rogers is a reminder that we can live differently. It is possible to slow down and see those around us. We can acknowledge others' presence in this world and affirm them in a cadence of gentleness and truth. It proves that no matter who you are or how important and celebrated you might be, you can take time for others. You never have to retire from caring. And kindness, like Mister Rogers himself, is real.
To learn more,"Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is an outstanding documentary that explores the life and legacy of Fred Rogers. It is showing now in select theaters. To view the trailer, click HERE.