How Mr. Rogers Changed Her Life

She would never forget the kind words the beloved TV icon said to her.

Posted in , Aug 26, 2021

Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. credit: Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images

How many hours could I spend staring at the same bit of ceiling? In the two weeks I’d spent flat on my back in the Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, I’d memorized every inch. At least my bed in the corner of the room was near a window, even if I couldn’t easily sit up to look out.

I was 12 years old, encased in a plaster body cast to stretch me out as much as possible before doctors inserted a metal rod in my back, an operation to straighten my spine. The only thing I had to look forward to each day was a visit from my parents. Today I didn’t even have that. A recent rainstorm had flooded out the roads, and I was stuck, alone and hidden away from the world.

Not that I’d be any happier after I was discharged from the hospital. School wasn’t much fun since the boys in my class had started teasing me, imitating my “funny” walk. I was already sensitive about my looks. My hair, my smile, my complexion… It had never occurred to me that my walk was a sign of something far more serious, until I was talking with my mother one evening. She was absentmindedly scratching my back and suddenly pressed hard on my shoulder blade. “What’s this bump?” she asked.

A doctor diagnosed scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. The treatment was extensive. I was in the second week of the three I had to spend in the hospital, with sedative injections to keep my muscles relaxed, in preparation for surgery. A Herrington rod would be attached to my spine with a hook and bone grafts from my hip. I’d spend another six to eight months in a full body cast at home, followed by four more months in a half-cast. It would be a while before I had to face the kids at school again.

I watched the rain slide down the window. Maybe I was just destined to be funny-looking, metal rod or not, I thought. I’d be alone forever. Never go on a date. Never have a boyfriend. Or a husband. I rolled my eyes to the side as best I could to catch a glimpse of the dozen or so girls in the ward with me, imagining they were all prettier than I would ever be.

A commotion in the doorway caught my attention. Obviously, a special guest had arrived. Local celebrities sometimes visited, mostly athletes who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Pirates. Judging by his silhouette, today’s guest wasn’t a professional athlete.

He stepped into the full light of the room and I gasped. It was Mr. Rogers from TV! Some would say I was too old for his trolley and the land of make-believe, but I’d never really outgrown him. My father knew I remained a fan, and every day when he came home from his work at the post office, he opened the door singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…” Dad would unzip his uniform sweater, hang it up and say, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

I still got a kick out of Dad’s routine. Mr. Rogers had been such a comforting, loving presence to me while I sat glued to his show. When he smiled out at me through the TV screen, I believed he was looking right at me, seeing me for the sometimes frightened little girl I was. He seemed to understand, like no other grown-up I knew, how confusing the world could be. Or maybe he was the only grown-up who was honest about it. He would never say anything that wasn’t absolutely true. No wonder I trusted him completely.

I watched him say “hello” to the girl in the bed nearest the door. He wouldn’t care that I wasn’t pretty like her, or laugh at the cast that made me feel as helpless as a turtle flipped over on its back. Maybe no boy would ever think I was worth talking to, but Mr. Rogers was nice to everyone. He moved through the room, stopping at every bedside for a short exchange.

By the time he made his way to me, I was thinking only of his kindness. He rested a hand on the railing beside my bed, looked down at me and smiled. A genuine smile, like the one I’d learned to trust when I was little. The smile that meant he really saw me, just as I was. He reached out and lightly touched my arm. “What a pretty girl.”

I was so stunned, I didn’t know what to say. Pretty. How many times had that word vexed me, sitting in front of my bedroom mirror, wondering if any boy would ever like me? But Mr. Rogers wasn’t talking about my hairstyle or my complexion, my crooked back or my clunky cast. He had seen something truer, and I believed him with my whole heart. I was beautiful—and I always would be. That thought would have seemed impossible a moment ago. I couldn’t wait to leave the hospital after the operation and reenter the world with a different kind of healing.

Did Mr. Rogers change the life of every child in the hospital that day the way he changed mine? I couldn’t know for sure. I do know that by the time my cast came off, I no longer fretted over the boys at school. I didn’t need a boy to tell me I was pretty, even after I went on to high school and beyond. I was beautiful. Mr. Rogers had told me so.

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