Many of us grew up watching the show “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” on PBS since it came on right after another classic show, Sesame Street. While the show encouraged our imagination, showed us the inside of pretzel factory and involved a whole lot of button up sweaters, and made us feel like the host, Fred Rogers, really was speaking to us directly as our friend, the show had a extra impact on one child.
Jeff Erlanger was a quadriplegic; his spinal cord was fused after he developed a tumor as an infant. He used a wheelchair, but his cognitive functioning was unaffected. Erlanger recently passed away at a young age of 32, but when he was ten he appeared on the show with Rogers as a guest.
The two talked for a bit and then sang the song “It’s you I like” together, with Rogers referring to Erlanger’s wheelchair as his “fancy chair” but that he liked the boy in the chair more. The moment was a classic on the show such that Erlanger was invited to speak at Rogers’s funeral a few years ago.
Erlanger earned a degree in political science from Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin and was a teacher, at one point running for city council in the heavily student populated area of Madison on the slogan “standing up for students.”
His story is a great example of efforts to show what all students can accomplish. In addition to his uplifting personal story, it highlights the great work of Rogers to include positive messages in his show and inspiration for all students no matter how “fancy” the chair is they use.
The story reminds us as teachers that including positive for role models in class is extremely important. For example, teachers talking about motivating students to go to college should use this story, and I’m sure there are many others out there. It reminds us that there are many teachable moments to highlight acceptance and that students with exceptionalities can do the same things as others.
The story also shows the role advocates, parents and teachers can have in the lives of students with disabilities. Jeff was able to meet Rogers after his sister wrote a letter to the show, we don’t always need to have a massive campaign or money to exert influence or have our students recognized. The power of their stories and the compassion of people like Rogers can have a great impact in society. There are plenty of good people out there, we just need to reach out and speak up for our students.
Source:Barbara Vanchert. (2003) Memorable guest: It's you, Fred, that I like. The Post Gazette, Pittsburgh, May 4. http://www.post-gazette.com/localnews/20030504erlanger0504p3.asp