I never much cared for Mr. Rogers. I mean, I didn't dislike him or anything*, I just didn't really care for him. His message, every day, was a pretty simple one, to my reading – You are loved. It was a good message, but it was one I heard every day from my parents and I didn't need it from someone on TV. That changed when I met a young boy I'll call Jeff.
See, I was a bit of a rarity. As a teenager, I liked and was liked by children and was willing to babysit, and had some experience and faculty with working with “special” kids. I mean, I've had very little formal training with it, but I kind of enjoy working with kids that are hyperactive or “troubled” and find it really quite rewarding.
Jeff was one such boy. It was summer, and his mother called in the mid-afternoon and asked if I could watch him for an hour or so while she ran a few errands. Jeff was a foster kid and had already developed a reputation as a bit of a bully and a jerk. He even scared some of the older kids but, as often happened, he and I got along quite well. I said, “Sure,” and drove over.
His foster mom met me at the door with the usual litany of instructions and directives and rules he had to follow** and hurried out the door, telling me she'd be back in, “An hour – less than an hour,” which I knew wasn't true. It would be at least two hours, but that was fine. I had plans to take Jeff to the park and play some Let's Pretend. The last time I'd watched him we'd started up a fine space pirate adventure I was keen to get back to. He was in the TV room right now, though, watching Mr. Rogers.
I stood at the doorway and watched him sitting in the middle of the living room floor for a minute before saying anything, trying to see the kid I knew and the kid everyone else seemed to know at the same time. He was still young, only ten or eleven, but already had a broad, muscular frame. His arms were ropy and strong under his long-sleeved shirt, and his neck was corded with muscle. He was leaning forward intently with his legs crossed and his hands in his lap, just like any other kid his age watching their favourite show.
Finally, I spoke up, asking him what he was watching.
“Mr. Rogers,” he said. “He loves me.”
I smiled. It wasn't my show, but I was glad he had it.
A few weeks later, I was at a local park when I heard shouting from the playground. I got up and moved toward it to find Jeff in the sandbox with another kid. Jeff was sitting on his chest and doing his best to fill the kid's mouth with sand. I pulled Jeff off the other boy. As soon as he felt my hands on his arms, he went slack and I carried him off without struggle. After everything else got sorted out – the other boy had apparently called Jeff a “fag,” and apologized, Jeff apologized for beating him up – it was just me and Jeff.
“Thanks for grabbing me, Jim,” he said, “I was gonna do something stupid.”
“You were doing something stupid, Jeff. Didn't your mom teach you better?”
He laughed. “No, my mom didn't teach me anything. She just liked to burn me.” I assumed he meant “burn” the way my friends and I used it – his mom, his first mom that he'd been taken from, used to insult him a lot. I turned on my lecture mode.
“That's too bad, Jeff. It's never fun to be made fun of . . .“ Jeff pulled up his shirt-sleeve and showed me the underside of his arm. It was a network of scar tissue, most of them small, round welts about the size and shape of a cigarette.
“No, Jim, she burned me.”
In 1997, Mr. Fred Rogers, everybody's neighbour, taught me how to pray. See, praying is something we direct to God, but it's not just saying words for the sake of being heard, it has to do with how we are and how we live.
I Thessalonians teaches us to pray continually, but it teaches us that just doing this isn't enough. Here's the whole thing:
But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labour among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another. We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.
You could spend a year of Sundays talking about just this passage and hardly get the end of it, but “pray without ceasing” is in there next to all the rest of it. Praying is about how you live every single day.
In 1997, Mr. Rogers accepted a Lifetime Achievement Reward at the Emmys. He's how he accepted it.
You might not have noticed it, but that was a prayer, and, if you live your life as Mr. Rogers directed you to right there, it's never going to cease. I never got the chance to learn this from Mr. Rogers until Jeff had moved on out of my life. I hope he learned the same life and that he's healed from his scars.
I still pray for him. Continually.
Happy birthday, Mr. Rogers. And thank you.
* If someone actually dislikes Mr. Rogers, I have a hard time trusting them. It's like finding someone regards “joy” as a negative.
** I'm keeping Jeff's true identity anonymous as much because of how often I ignored his foster mom's rules as anything else.