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COMMENTARY: The real life lessons of ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’

Three years ago, I inadvertently landed on a YouTube episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and my heart stopped when I heard the bells introducing the theme music. When Rogers started singing his signature greeting, I burst into tears.

Last week, at a screening of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — the new documentary of Fred Rogers directed by Morgan Neville — I lasted little more than a few minutes. During the opening sequence, the iconic red neighborhood trolley is lovingly lifted out of a wooden case and gently placed on its track. I wept.

Such it is with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — you wouldn’t show up if you didn’t have strong, happy memories of spending countless hours with the gentle, cardigan-draped Pied Piper of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. And you won’t make it through the film without feeling your heart ache.

When you look at the format and mechanics of this documentary, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. We learn about young TV performer Fred Rogers, who, by a twist of fate in the form of a broken film reel, ends up improvising a time-telling segment with his trusty sockpuppet Daniel Tiger. From there he gets a grant and grows the children’s show into the must-see TV that many of us remember from childhood.

His fans already know what a profound impact Rogers had on us.

But the magic of Neville’s lushly filmed movie is in discovering that Rogers made every one of his viewers feel special, strong — even heroic. He made them feel he was speaking directly to them when he declared, for instance, “The truth is inside of us, and it’s wonderful when we have the courage to tell it.”

As, at least partly, a hagiography, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” features interviews with Rogers’ wife, sons and co-workers — those he spent the most time with — and they admit that, yes, he was the same in real life as he portrayed himself on camera. One son shared that it was “a little tough for me to have the second Christ as a dad.”

The strength of this film, however, is in highlighting little-known aspects of the show that would never have occurred to the kids who were watching it.

Several people in the film hailed Fred Rogers as a radical for respecting children’s inherent dignity, for looking to research in the social sciences to guide his segments, for being so bold in his conversations with kids and for being so diverse. (It is stunning to see archival footage of black, Asian and Latino children just naturally working and playing together.)

We learn that in Rogers’ mind, the neighborhood was make-believe but not exactly a fantasy place — it was filled with real personalities that, when put together, sometimes experienced genuine conflict.

A scene from episode 2, filmed in 1968, is chilling in our modern-day context. A blaring newspaper headline informs us that King Friday XIII — the Neighborhood of Make-Believe’s benevolent dictator — establishes a border guard. In subsequent episodes, several characters are sad because they’ve been conscripted to defend the kingdom’s perimeter.All this because the king is against change.

The film explains that this was a direct reference to events occurring in the Vietnam War and was designed to help children process their parents’ anxieties and their own fears.

Yes, that’s how truly heavy and deep this seemingly simplistic show was.

The heart of this gentle man’s story, however, is the impact Rogers had. Go see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” to understand the enormity of this man’s influence.

As a child of recent immigrants who spoke only Spanish at home, I spent long stretches of time alone as my family struggled to clothe and house and feed us all. Fred Rogers meant so much more to me than just being a nice guy with puppets on TV.

Near the film’s end, we see a young woman meeting Rogers and crumpling into tears. “I wasn’t allowed to go to preschool … so my mom made me watch you,” she told him. “Thank you for giving me a preschool education.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Contact Esther Cepeda at estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow on Twitter @estherjcepeda.

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