Help

Help

“Help.” James JohnstoneCC BY

As I entered the darkened cinema auditorium, an attendant handed me a pack of tissues.

Foreshadowing at its best.

The tears come at various points throughout the viewing of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—the lovingly documented life and work of Fred Rogers.

Mr. Rogers operated from a profound wellspring of love and empathy for children. At the outset of the movie, he’s young, seated at a piano. The film is black-and-white. With his hands on the keys, Mr. Rogers speaks of modulations: “It’s fairly easy to go from, say, a C to an F,” he says, playing each chord. “But to go from an F to an F-sharp,” he models, “you must navigate all sorts of things.” He saw the new medium of communication, television, as a means of helping children navigate the modulations of life. Fears. Changes. Questions. Emotions. A country at war. Hatred. Not understanding. Divorce. Illness. Death.

I watched and listened with the ears of an educator and the heart of a writer. This is my work, too, I thought, only my medium is paper and pencil. 

Then, after having helped generations of children through the modulations of life, came 9/11.

Mr. Rogers, then retired, was asked to help, his voice, his presence, once again a ray of light, this time cutting through incomprehensible darkness. In the documentary, the sorrow is etched on his face. He spoke of being tikkun olam, “repairers of creation.”

With his words I saw the world in all its brokenness, violence, despair . . . and thought, It begins with the world inside us. Repair begins there, within each of us, before we can work on the world without.

I thought of children I’ve known through the years, finding their voices through writing, facing their fears, overcoming them, gaining strength and courage. Children who have suffered loss and grappled with it in their own words. I’ve read the haunting account of a child being tortured in another country and celebrating his new life in the United States. I thought it was fiction until the third-person changed to first near the narrative’s end; the teenager was writing about himself. A second-grader whose mother was remarrying and her fear: “Will my stepfather like me?” A fifth-grader lashing out at her mother in the very first line of her memoir over how many times they’d had to move, and how it hard it was to have any friends.

And with the words that came from within, anger eventually melted to forgiveness, fears pointed toward hope, insecurities gave way to confidence and validation. With the writing, the stories became those of enduring, of overcoming, of celebration.

Repairing within.

I thought about how some educators look at writing only as a means of retelling what you know from what you’ve read, or a standard to be delivered, assessed, and crossed off a list. No time for this “touchy-feely” kind of  thing . . . yet the one thing that best helps children understand themselves, the world around them, and their place in it, is writing. Freedom versus constriction. Discovering potential, seeing possibilities, problem-solving. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Why is the goal “college and career ready?” How about life ready?

For the modulations don’t end in childhood, do they, Grown-Up.

Mr. Rogers spoke of his own childhood and what his mother told him whenever there was a catastrophe, or news of tragedy, on the air; she said “Look for the helpers. There will always be helpers, even if on the sidelines . . . because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

Look for the helpers. Repairers of the world.

Then be the hope.

And . . . write.

15 thoughts on “Help

    • I’m delighted that this post moves you to encourage your daughter to write – and excited for what she’ll discover when she does. Extraordinary things happen when we write. We are transformed; we can transform. Thank you for reading and for making my day with your words. 🙂

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  1. I need to see this movie! I grew up watching Mr. Rogers, as so many of us did. Fran, you make such important points here in such powerful ways. May I quote part of this post, crediting you, in a speech I am to give to teachers about the power of writing?

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    • I watched him as a child, too. Do see the movie, Kathleen; I want to see it again myself. The truths keep ringing in my head. By all means share what resonates with you in my post – I am honored that you ask and delighted to think that it will be used to illustrate the power of writing to teachers. Thank you so much!

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    • There’s just so much to take away from this film, from Mr. Rogers. Talk about being a risk-taker, persevering, seeing possibilities, believing – all these things of value to us as teachers and writers are what humanity is about, or should be about. Mr. Rogers lived it. Do go see the movie and thank you for reading. 🙂

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  2. Your piece should begin with “Warning: Tissues may be needed”! Now that I’ve wiped my eyes and blown my nose, I can finish this reply. Thanks for reminding me to see this film. My sister was just telling me about it. I also keep grappling with schools that focus on tests and curriculum and seem to forget to focus on each child and ensure they feel safe. This year I teach Reading 6 and have missed Writing Workshop. However, your piece reminds me of the great gift I have in teaching my students to write about their reading so they can name what the story taught them and how they may live now, having read. (or viewed a film). Thanks for sharing so clearly how much this film taught you and reminding me to go see it, with tissues!

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    • Sally, thank you for telling me how the post affected you. I am so moved by your words that I am nearly at a loss for any more of my own. I hadn’t expected the depth of emotion and deep thinking that Mr. Rogers stirred in me. It’s still stirring; I’ll probably write more … I can well imagine how you miss writing workshop but oh, yes, you do have a great gift to share with your students: Writing about things meaningful to them will always bring clarity and a release of emotion. You’ll find exciting, powerful ways to make it happen for your students – there will be stories to tell that we need to hear! Thank you again.

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  3. Thank you, again, for writing a piece that speaks to my heart. I keep going back to the paragraph where you say how educators typically view writing and how we NEED to view writing. It truly is about “life readiness” isn’t it? I think I need to go see this movie!

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    • Thank you, Leigh Anne, for your always-gracious response. I think a primary reason that the documentary struck me so is realizing just how much Mr. Rogers believed in his mission to help children, how vital he thought it was. He approached this with such clear-mindedness and courage. With such purity of heart. Despite backlash, for even he suffered it. If we approach our work the same way… especially with writing…imagine the lasting impact…

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  4. Thank you for your encouraging post. Yes we all need to tell our stories and write! Since I’ve been writing in a regular basis I teach things so differently – actually I see the world so differently. It is a gift indeed!
    And yes we need more Mr. Roger’s in our world!
    Must. See. Movie!

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    • What an excellent point – since you’ve been writing regularly, you teach differently because you see the world differently. Truth! I think writing helps us teach more “deeply,” or on a deeper level that really connects with students. Writing connects us – stories connect us – to each other. Thank you for these words!

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