Insights into Montreal Part 2: Mr. Rogers, Community Storytelling and the Power of One-to-One
Every Mister Rogers' Neighborhood episode begins in the same way. As he enters his TV house, he starts by singing.
It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Revisiting episodes of this beloved show is thought-provoking. I wasn’t born when Mr. Rogers debuted but I still find something enchanting about his daily ritual. When he was interviewed on the Charlie Rose show, Rose asked him how many children he thinks he’s influenced over the years and Mr. Rogers responded:
“I don’t care how many, even if it’s just one. We get so wrapped up in numbers in our society. The most important thing is that we are able to be one-to-one, you and I with each other at the moment. If we can be present to the moment with the person that we happen to be with, that’s what’s important.”
The one-to-one moment is key. And those moments are hard to come by today. We do live in a culture of sharing but much of that sharing is focused on maximizing the amount of people reached rather than individual impact. For example, if you think about our version of stories today – you might think of Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook stories where one can string together pictures and videos taken throughout the day that normally only stay posted for 24 hours before fading away.
A couple weeks ago, Literacy Quebec ran a Community Storytelling Workshop in partnership with fellow local organization, Suspicious Fish. All were welcome to come, listen to stories, write their own, receive feedback, engage with the Verdun community, and explore storytelling in its various forms. One of the best parts of the workshop was that it felt intimate and easy-going. We all shared stories with one another and listened to what each other wanted to say. It didn’t matter how many people were being influenced as much as it mattered that the people in the room felt comfortable to share. I racked my brain for a funny family anecdote to tell but came up with nothing. I talked about something I read in a magazine that I loved instead and it was great. Some of the best stories don’t even have a phenomenal ending or an extraordinary plot but are simply told with heart and that seems to be what matters most.
Mr. Rogers once said, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self”. Through sharing stories we cherish, we can tell about our honest selves. And that gets us closer to those one-on-one magic connections.
We all have stories to tell. Except right before telling them, we occasionally get stumped thinking that they aren’t worth sharing or aren’t noteworthy enough for people to care about. What if we replaced this doubt with another sentiment that Mr. Rogers frequently referred to in his shows? He finished every episode the same way in his closing song – by saying: "You always make each day a special day. You know how: By just your being you. There's only one person in the whole world that's like you, and that's you. And people can like you just the way you are. I'll be back next time. Bye-bye!"
He would enforce this notion constantly and as Morgan Neville’s new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores, contemporaries of Rogers would sometimes blame him for breeding a sense of entitlement and self-centeredness among children. He responded to these critics in his 2002 Dartmouth commencement speech:
“It’s you I like…And what that ultimately means, of course, is that you don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see, or hear, or touch.”
As Literacy Quebec and Suspicious Fish prepare for our next storytelling event on July 12th, I think about the value of the stories we tell. The simple act of sharing one story may seem like a drop in the ocean but maybe its impact is invisible to the eye. Each word has an undercurrent that reaches further. Had Mr. Rogers been so focused on impact and numbers, would the messages of his show have traveled as far as they have today? Our stories have power when we believe in them and no matter how many people they reach; they are special because they share a part of our honest self.
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