Trouble In The Neighborhood

Our guest author today is Randy Garton, former Director of Research and Operations at the Albert Shanker Institute. He retired in 2015.

I recently went with my oldest son, a young adult on the autism spectrum, to see “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a movie featuring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. It is a grown-up movie, inspired by real events. It tells the story of a reporter (played by Matthew Rhys), who is assigned to do a profile of Rogers. 

The reporter, Tom Junod, is depicted as a cynical, angry, but honest man who endeavors to find the “real” Mr. Rogers — who he supposes is much different from the kindly figure seen on TV.  Instead, he discovers that Rogers is a complex, kind, thoughtful and brilliant artist. He was certainly not a saint, but a decent man who tried to live his life by the values he taught on the show and, by and large, succeeded. 

The acting was top notch. As expected, Hanks was great in the role and was the perfect guy for the part. Junod’s  wife was played by an African-American actress, adding an extra layer of complexity. I don’t know whether or not the wife of the real journalist was Black, but it struck me as important in the film. She was depicted as very strong and smart. Junod was portrayed as a man in pain due to his father’s actions at the time of his mother’s death. He didn’t know how to deal with those feelings, and Mr. Rogers helped.

I believe that many people left that movie wanting to be a better person. I certainly did.

As the movie unfolded, I glanced over at my son, to see him weeping quietly, tears running down his cheeks. He told me afterwards that Mr. Rogers had been so kind to a disabled kid, and that he had helped the cynical journalist to heal.  We had also learned that Fred Rogers was a vegetarian because, as Tom Hanks quoted an actual Mr. Rogers saying, he “just couldn’t see eating anything that had a mother.”

At home, still damp-eyed and emotional, my son told his mom about Mr. Rogers being a vegetarian. He has always loved animals and spends as much time as he can at the National Zoo. (He’s not a vegetarian —yet. We’re waiting). 

My kid is a young man who has experienced more than his fair share of unkindness in this life. And he has picked up on far too much of it. Seeing him cry at this portrayal of the power of kindness pretty much did me in, but that’s another story.  

The movie got me to thinking about the current state of the nation and how we behave toward one another. Which brought me to the behavior of some of the GOP types at the Trump impeachment hearings, who tried to find excuses for abhorrent conduct and attempted to besmirch the characters of those who testified under oath. I wondered whether, if we could tie Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan to chairs and force them to watch “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” it would make them want to be better people. Maybe just a little? Would it also crack open their cynical hearts? How about Lindsey Graham? 

Fred Rogers was a Republican, according to Wiki, which is not surprising since he was the son of a small town businessman. Somehow, if he were alive today, I don’t think that he would approve of the conduct of his fellow Republicans. I’d even like to believe that he would be a never-Trumper. But I have no doubt that he would be praying for the nation to regain its moral compass and for his fellow Republicans to regain theirs.