Lessons Learned & Meeting Mr. Rogers

by Robert P. Barsanti

I met Mr. Rogers. Apparently, having met the man is a mark of length of servitude to the island. If you can remember him, met him, or fixed his roof, you get a medal or some sort of certificate. Since his show has been off the air for a long time now, he only exists in memes and memories. Twitch just placed the entirety of his show online, so I suppose King Friday and the Trolley can echo again in the digital universe.

Unfortunately, we never spoke. In the summer, Mr. Rogers and I would swim at the high school pool in the morning. Through some strange trick of the dawn, the two of us arrived and left at the same time. My memory is that he swam with the equipment of a man of his age and station: goggles, bathing cap, and nose-plugs. But he was there every morning, paddled for a half mile or so, and left by seven o’clock when the water aerobics class would start. The sun would rise over the deep end and color in the far deck and swimmers then creep over the glass, and he would assemble all of his gear, towel off, and walk off to the showers.

One of the more treasured stories I have from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood came from a former director of the Nantucket Community School. She got a phone call from the famous children’s TV star at 5:30 in the morning looking for someone to open the pool since the lifeguard had slept in. Naturally, she responded.

At the time, I chalked up his peevishness to the entitlement of the summer visitors, but age has whipped me and I call those scars “wisdom.” I can now see him in the true light of the pre-dawn. We need our procedures, we need our patterns, we need our habits.

Life nudged me and I fell out of the morning swim habits. Early morning diapers, late night grading, and the press of the “to do” list pulled me from the pool in the morning. It was easier to stay in bed and it was more generous. One young man wakes up at four in the morning and begins bouncing in the crib. Instead of waiting for “someone else” to take charge, you get up, bring the young prince downstairs, and begin the day with Thomas the Tank Engine. The dawn creeps up over the Island of Sodor instead. Cheerios are piled up, milk is poured, and the day begins.

Habits are selfish. When you get up every morning and go swimming, as Fred Rogers did, you are telling the other people in your life to step away. Invariably, this annoys them and guilts you, then the music starts in for the resentment/ justification Virginia Reel. Someone has to watch the kids, someone has to make dinner, someone has to go to work. The friction of life grinds you down until you run smooth and you can be swallowed whole. But if you can keep the habit going, if you are selfish enough and strong enough to walk out the door in the morning, you can stop time. Each workout is just like another workout. You might be fat, tired, and out of shape, but the road is the road, the water is the water, and the clock is the clock. The weather is different, the clothes are different, and the annoying people in the locker room are different, but the you are the same in the nirvana of your skull.

Everyone who loves the pilgrim soul in you respects that. Nobody, not even children, need you to be present 100% of the time. They need to be able to eat dirt, fall over, and annoy the neighbors without a lifeguard to interpret and intervene. Everyone needs to be alone so that they can hear the surf and feel the wind. No parent wants to teach their child how to follow. Leadership is lonely, best get used to it.

But the world wants you to stand in line with your money ready. It does not want you in Nirvana, it wants you in the Chicken Box. You need to wait, hope your friends will come to validate you, pay your money, and do the Frug with Joshua Tree. Then, when you have a moment, take a selfie so everyone else in line knows where you are and that you got the new Figawi hat.

The best habits happen privately and the world has been drained of privacy. Every worthwhile habit (and several that aren’t) happen after you close a door. You write, you read, you swim, you run, you pray, you go to the Land of Make Believe only after you close a door. Everyone has to be shooed out of your room, and then the door is firmly locked. Our world hates locked doors. It wants you onstage, dancing and singing for the digital audience. They need you. They need to make you feel better, and they need you to make them feel better. They want you to give them “likes” and retweets and comments. Our digital community is a whirlpool of needs. And, like a whirlpool, they will never stop needing.

When I think of Mr. Rogers, I don’t think of him on television, wearing the sweaters his mother knit and switching to his sneakers. I think of him in the pool, paddling in a lop-sided crawl up and down the far lane, pausing at each wall, and continuing on. I am sure that, back in my youth, after Sesame Street and before The Electric Company, I learned a few lessons that got somehow buried into the fabric of my character. But, the one I value the most came when the cameras were off and the sky was dark. The lesson repeated over and over and over again, morning following morning. Salvation comes with surrender and solitude.