Today I finished the dreaded 8 exam block of dental school. For the last two weeks I’ve had to take a test almost every weekday and today it finally ended. It was such a great feeling leaving that room and actually feeling like I accomplished something.
Times like this remind me of the steps I’ve had to take to get where I am today, and I am fortunate enough to be able to pinpoint a crucial time in my education where the world didn’t seem so big, and anything seemed possible if I just tried hard enough. That time was the first year I was in the United States. In 2000, my family moved to California from Peru and I didn’t speak a lick of English. When I started school, I was placed in a special program for English as a second language, but it wasn’t very helpful considering the school I attended was primarily Hispanic so I never had to use English outside of talking with my tutor, who by the way was from Africa and had trouble speaking English himself.
I was afraid I would never learn English. The thought alone of relearning every word in my tiny brain in another language was daunting and it made me really scared. My parents didn’t really help much, since they didn’t know English and they constantly reminded me that if I didn’t learn English I would not be able to do much in life. Such is the life of an immigrant family and it was their way of encouraging me to succeed.
The educational system wasn’t completely useless however, and out of all of the people that tried to teach me English, one succeeded without even trying. That person was Mr. Rogers. The very first morning after moving to California I remember waking up before anyone else due to the excitement of being in a brand new and strange place, and turning on the TV. I was welcomed by the flamboyant embrace of the Teletubbies on PBS. These giant colorful characters had two catchphrases if that, but they kept me entertained since there was nothing else for kids to watch that early in the morning. For the weeks to follow I would continue to get up early to watch them jump around, get messy with their custard, and watch kids clean their room or make crafts on the television sets in their bellies. It was unusual for a kid my age (I was 9 at the time) to be watching Teletubbies, but the fact that they didn’t speak made it easy to understand.
When school started, I had to get up even earlier, and I would have the TV on while I got ready so I could catch the Teletubbies on TV at 6:00AM. The program that preceded the Teletubbies was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. At first I couldn’t understand much of what Mr. Rogers was saying, but as I kept watching every morning, I understood more and more. He spoke slowly and intently, always pausing before he started another sentence. He took his time to explain what he was doing and always let the other characters finish talking before he said anything. He was kind and welcoming, and I felt the care and charisma he so perfectly portrayed. I felt like an actual guest in his home, I never felt rushed to learn like I would when I worked with my tutor, and I never felt pressured like I would by my parents. Mr. Rogers made it possible for me to learn English not only because of how he ran the show, but eventually when I was able to understand what his show was about, he made me realize that it was possible for me to learn English because I had put my mind and heart to it. He validated my fear of never being able to learn English well, because feeling afraid is a real emotion, yet he taught me not to be defined by my fear but rather by how I handle myself when I’m afraid.
I also remember that for many years I was embarrassed of the fact that I watched the Teletubbies until I was about 11. Whenever it came up in conversation I would always reluctantly share the experience but it wasn’t something I was particularly proud of. It wasn’t until after I watched the video I have linked in this post that I felt proud of those mornings. Mr. Rogers fought tooth and nail to keep that type of programming available to all kids like me. Whether it was the Teletubbies, Arthur, Barney or his own show, he knew that educational programming was indispensable when it came to the development of young minds. He knew that with the amount of saturation and impact that “Saturday morning cartoons” had, there had to be alternative programs that would not bombard the mind, but nurture it and help it grow.
Mr. Rogers died on a Thursday while I was in middle school, and I remember sitting in my room watching the evening news and crying. Today I am who I am, partly due to the passion that Mr. Rogers had for education, and I will be forever grateful for his dedication and love for kids like me.