Posts Tagged ‘mister rogers’


Photo: Judith Jockel/laif/Redux
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is a musician who knows the power of music to be a force for good. Concerned about our fractured society, he asked himself, “What can I do?”

Recently, my husband and I watched the lovely documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — about children’s television visionary Fred Rogers.

Mister Rogers had a gift for speaking directly to the individual child through a mass medium, unlikely as that sounds, looking into the child’s eyes and letting the child know that she was seen.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who ultimately became a friend of Mister Rogers, is seen in the documentary making his first appearance on the show. He tells the documentarian, who happens to be his son Nicholas, that he was scared to death when Mister Rogers put his face very close and looked into his eyes, until he realized that’s what children do.

It made me a bit sad and more conscious of the lack of eye contact today’s children get as we imagine we’re interacting if we talk to them while looking at our phones. No wonder they get stressed. Generally speaking, it’s through the eyes that children learn they are really seen. Mister Rogers understood their needs. He was a great healer.

Yo-Yo Ma is also a healer, but although he has appeared often on television like Mister Rogers, it is music that is his medium. Rebecca Milzof reports at Billboard about Ma’s current project to use his musical gift to help heal the fractured world.

“On Sept. 2, cellist Yo-Yo Ma played all six of Bach’s cello suites at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, Germany. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for the world’s most famous classical musician, who was playing at the church where the composer premiered many of his works. But the setting had a deeper meaning: In 1989, it’s where peaceful rebellions against communist rule — which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall — began.

“ ‘This is the very [place] where these [political] changes happen,’ says Ma, 62, over the phone from Leipzig. Today, he notes, Syrian refugees are coming to the city and facing demonstrations of a different sort — from right-wing nationalists. ‘It’s the right moment to explore the idea of home. What is home? It’s where you go to be sustained in difficult times. For me, Bach is home.’

“Over the next two years, Ma will visit 36 sites worldwide as part of his Bach Project, playing the cello suites in places like the Nikolaikirche — settings with sociopolitical meaning. It coincides with the recent release of his third and final recording of the suites, Six Evolutions.

“ ‘We live in more and more of a fractured society,’ the 18-time Grammy winner says. ‘As a cellist, I was thinking, “What can I do to help?” I’ve been toying with the idea of “citizen musicians” for a while.’ …

“So far, that has meant engaging with the Mexican-American community around Denver after playing Red Rocks in August and meeting community organizers spurring industrial revitalization outside Cleveland.

“ ‘One of the things culture does best is to make the “other” into “us,” ‘ he says. He’ll test that idea on six continents.” More at Billboard, here.

By the way, Nell Minnow has a really nice interview with the younger Ma about Won’t You Be My Neighbor? on Medium, here. He talks about performing with his dad as a child on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and he still sounds amazed that Fred Rogers could get him to do that.

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Before I had children, I didn’t quite “get” Mister Rogers. I thought the slow, gentle way he talked was odd.

But then I saw how John at the age of three reacted to him, and the penny dropped. I hadn’t been able to figure out Mister Rogers because he wasn’t talking to me! He was talking to three-year-olds.

Mister Rogers did know how to talk to grown-ups when needed.

Recently, during the national discussion about possible funding cuts for the arts and Public Broadcasting, someone posted on Facebook a 1969 video of Mister Rogers testifying before US Senator John O. Pastore of Rhode Island. At the time, Sen. Pastore was chairman of US Senate Subcommittee on Communications.

It’s a great, great speech. It’s even recognized as such on the American Rhetoric website. The testimony won PBS $20 million in funding from the originally skeptical Sen. Pastore.

But what strikes me most strongly is that its power comes from the speaker’s clearly communicated belief in the essential goodness of his listener. It is communicated through Mister Rogers’s tone of voice and body language.

Faith in the listener is what came across to three-year-old John, too. “You are special. I like you just the way you are.”

See what you think.

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In Slate magazine, Katie Roiphe wonders whether good children’s book writers need to be childlike themselves.

“Is it possible that the most inspired children’s book writers never grow up? By that I don’t mean that they understand or have special affection or affinity toward children, but that they don’t understand adulthood, and I mean that in the best possible sense. It may be that they haven’t moved responsibly out of childhood the way most of us have, into busy, functional, settled adult life.” Read more.

Roiphe may be right about certain children’s writers, but I think she misses an important aspect of Margaret Wise Brown and Goodnight Moon. The book is based on research conducted at the Bank Street School in New York. Educators there observed that very young children like to hear about common things that they see around them and know about. And they like repetition. Watching toddlers react to Goodnight Moon is proof of the theory.

Some people known for their children’s books were indeed Peter Pans who never grew up. Hans Christian Anderson comes to mind. Roiphe mentions Lewis Carroll. But surely the most important thing, whether you are a childlike children’s author or an adultlike children’s author, is to see things the way children do. Ed Emberley, the subject of my March 24 post, is an example. Mister Rogers, too, for that matter. I became an instant convert to Mister Rogers when I saw how my 3-year-old responded to him.

Would love to hear your take on this.

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