When I, and your parents, were young, a Presbyterian minister named Fred Rogers hosted a popular television series for preschool-aged children called “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” You may have heard of it, but I doubt you ever saw it. It aired from 1968 to 2001, and as the average of all your birthdays is January 15, 1999 – which is, by the way, almost exactly midway between the happy arrivals of baby James Webster and baby Nick Bonaker at the start of that penultimate year of the last millennium – I think you probably missed Mr. Rogers on TV.
As for me, I never really watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” I was more of a Captain Kangaroo and Bozo the Clown kid. Apparently, I liked my preschool entertainment served up in gaudy suits and/or orange hair.
But Mr. Rogers was an undeniable force – in 1996, TV Guide ranked him #35 among their “Fifty Greatest TV Stars of All Time” – and through the years, I have come to appreciate what his consistent messages of kindness and authenticity, and his emphasis on human dignity, meant to the moral formation of generations of American children.
I thought of Mr. Rogers this week in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing in England, when we learned that two homeless men named Chris Parker and Stephen Jones aided many of the victims of that cowardly and hateful attack. Mr. Rogers once recalled to his audience, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
This allowance of optimism is one of several that writer Todd VanDerWerff highlighted earlier this month in an article titled “Nine Times Mister Rogers Said Exactly the Right Thing.” Silver linings and blessings in disguise were the currency of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“Often,” he once observed to his young viewers, “when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”
Mr. Rogers was a whisperer to the ever-centering self. The world is a fearful place, he acknowledged, but you – for Mr. Rogers nearly always spoke in the second person – you must be without fear within it; because only by being without fear can you be at peace. Sometimes he was only talking about bathtub drains or haircuts – neither, he assured his preschool audience, will be the death of you – but sometimes he was aiming higher.
For Mr. Rogers, the opposite of fear was not audacity or boldness, but acceptance – acceptance of life as it is, of others as they are, and of you as you are. Acceptance is harder work than audacity, in the same way that listening is harder work than speaking.
“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring,” Mr. Rogers once said. “It is an active noun, like ‘struggle.’ To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr authored one of the more famous prayers ever composed: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” It’s usually called the “Serenity Prayer,” but it may just as well be called the “Parent Prayer.”
It’s not so easy for us parents to accept the things we cannot change in our children. We tend to have plenty of courage to change the things we want to change. We don’t always have the wisdom to know the difference. So that’s a parent grade of about 33%, for those of you keeping score in the audience. That’s closer to an F than an A, even on a generous curve, but I will say in our defense that we parents tend to earn better grades in the school of the “Serenity Prayer” as we grow older, and as you grow older, too.
You seniors thought this speech was a love letter to you.
It’s actually a love letter to your parents.
“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” offered a complete curriculum on acceptance, the toughest subject you can study at the school of the “Serenity Prayer.” And self-acceptance might be the toughest course in that toughest of disciplines.
Mr. Rogers had this to say to the children in his audience, and he would have had it to say, I am sure, to the Randolph School Class of 2017: “If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet, how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
And Mr. Rogers would have had these modified words to say to the parents of the Randolph School Class of 2017, I am equally sure: “If you could only sense how important your children are to the lives of those they meet, how important they can be to the people they may never even dream of. There is something of themselves that they leave at every meeting with another person.”
But I expect that you understand this by now – understand that your children, whatever their persistent quirks or challenges, are, and will continue to be, a gift, not only to you, but to countless other people besides. We parents are forced to repeat the acceptance classes at the school of the “Serenity Prayer” until our grades improve, and you parents of the Class of 2017 have had plenty of time in school.
So I will end where I began, addressing the Class of 2017 itself – because, believe it or not, your time in school has only just begun. Mr. Rogers was fond of singing to the children in his television audience. On behalf of your parents, and your families and friends, and the faculty and staff at Randolph who care so much for you, on this threshold of the rest of your life, when so often you will not be at peace, when you will fall short of accepting the things you cannot change, and accepting and embracing who you are, I offer you one of Mr. Rogers’ simplest and most memorable songs to take with you on your journey, because we are never too old to be sung to:
It’s you we like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair,
But it’s you we like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you,
Not the things that hide you,
Not your diplomas, they’re just beside you….
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you we like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you we like.
Farewell, Randolph Class of 2017! We wish all of you acceptance, courage, wisdom, serenity, and love in your lives ahead.