Afterwards, I was given the opportunity to go backstage, and there he was, taking pictures and chatting with the Engadget staff.
“Do you want to go meet him?” my husband asked. I stood there for a few minutes, trying to decide. LeVar Burton is one of my heroes, so OF COURSE I WANT TO MEET HIM AND HUG HIM AND NEVER EVER LET GO. But he’s a busy man, and he had a backpack on his shoulder. He was ready to move on to the next big adventure. I didn’t want to get in his way. Plus, I was feeling especially tongue-tied and didn’t know what I could say to him.
“If you don’t go say hello, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” My husband was right, of course. So we went over, shook LeVar’s hand (yes, we’re now on a first-name basis), and talked to him for a few minutes. He asked us if he thought his message resonated with us, his “kids” who grew up watching the show in the 1980s. We told him that the show inspired both of us with a love of reading, and I admitted that even though I’m a total technophobe I think he’s right that one of the best ways to reach kids today is through devices like iPads and smart phones - just as when we were kids, television was the way to go. I tried to explain just how much of an influence he had on my childhood, but I think I mostly just said, “Thank you” over and over. I think he knew what I was trying to get out, because he said that he felt a special connection with us, but I want to try and express my gratitude just one more time.
Thank you, LeVar Burton, for all the lessons you taught me through Reading Rainbow. I’m not just talking about helping me learn to read and appreciate books, although just for that you have my eternal gratitude. I mean thank you for the life lessons that I learned through your show and your work.
1. The story doesn’t start and end with the covers of a book.
Not at all! The story expands beyond the book’s pages and into the real world. In each episode of Reading Rainbow, a book is read to the audience, and then there’s a “field trip” that somehow relates to that story. For example, “The Bionic Bunny Show” by Marc Brown is a picture book about a rabbit actor who goes to his TV studio and transforms into a superhero with the help of the TV production team. (I believe the story tied into the Arthur series, but don’t quote me on that.) Cool book, but what made this particular episode extra awesome is that Levar then took the audience behind the scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation so that kids could see the different stages of production. I wasn’t watching Star Trek at the time, but I was mesmerized by the show. To this day, I remember the wizardry of the make-up artists as they transformed Michael Dorn into Worf. And each episode of Reading Rainbow would take the theme or setting of a story and expand it. A clever chef protects her prized jewels from a thief in The Robbery at the Diamond Dog Diner”? Why not take a look at what life is like working in a real diner? Kids, did you enjoy the story “The Purple Coat”? Great, let’s see how real clothes are made in New York City’s Garment District!
It was great.
2. You don’t have to do just one thing when you grow up.
In the late 1980s and early 90s, when I was at prime Reading Rainbow age, LeVar Burton was also co-starring in Star Trek: The Next Generation. When I was a kid, I thought that was amazing. How could the man be in TWO shows at the same time? As I grew older, I continued to be impressed with Burton’s productivity. He did voice-acting, directed episodes of Star Trek, and continued to host/produce Reading Rainbow. I now know that a lot of actors multi-task and have wildly divergent careers, but watching LeVar Burton on two TV shows is the first time I realized that such a thing was possible.
3. Don’t be afraid to try something new – and it’s OK to fail.
As part of the “field trips”, LeVar would occasionally try something new. Sometimes he was successful, but at other times it didn’t go well. For example, in that episode about diners I remember LeVar learns about short-order cooking and the specialized lingo used by the diner’s staff. (“Pigs in a blanket” and that sort of thing.) At the end of the episode, confident in his new knowledge, he orders a meal in this diner-speak. The food that arrives is not what he expected or wanted. (I don’t remember the details now, twenty-plus years later, but the food was weird.) LeVar sighs to the waitress, “This is what I ordered, so this is what I’ll have,” and digs in anyway. It was somehow comforting, as a child, to realize that you could make a mistake and everything would be fine.
Even the way that the show itself has been resurrected as an iPad app ties into this. The television show was canceled in 2006, and taken off the air in 2009. The Reading Rainbow team could have shopped the idea around to other networks, and likely the show would have found a new home off of PBS. But instead, they decided to take a risk and try creating something similar to the show as an app for tablets. I haven’t tried it, but it’s my understanding that the format works really well and, to my surprise, really encourages kids to read and not just play games and watch videos. How cool is that?
4. History is AWESOME! Other cultures are AWESOME!
From mummies and Ancient Egypt (“Mummies Made in Egypt”) to African slaves in America (“Follow the Drinking Gourd”), LeVar brought history to life and made it dynamic and exciting. These episodes not only introduced me to fascinating times and places, but ultimately they helped set me on my career path. If Reading Rainbow had not spurred an early fascination with mummies, I don’t know if I would be focused on preserving material culture in museums today.
Of course, you didn’t just learn about dead civilizations on Reading Rainbow. The episodes where LeVar visits Montserrat in the Caribbean (“My Little Island”) or a Native American pueblo in New Mexico (“The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush”) were just as interesting because they showed how diverse and beautiful life can be outside suburbia. And it sounds strange to say this, but when I was a kid LeVar Burton was virtually the only African-American making a regular appearance in my life. Whenever I saw him so open and interested in other cultures, it helped me remember how important it was to embrace difference and learn about other ways of thinking outside my own. And it also reminded me that the negative way the media often portrayed African-Americans at the time wasn’t necessarily true.
5. Read. Share what you’ve read.
Or, to put it another way, “Never stop learning.” Be curious! Explore the world. And whatever it is that you find, share it with others. In every Reading Rainbow episode, there is a segment in which kids provide micro-reviews of books they’ve read. I thought this was so cool! First, because these kids had read the book and knew it well enough that they could talk about it on TV. I didn’t see much difference between myself and the kids on the show, so perhaps my thoughts on a story were valid, too. The show taught me not to be afraid to put my ideas out there and tell others about them. In a way, I’d say the show prepared me very well for the Internet and today’s social media madness, because one of the things that I learned was that anyone – a kid book reviewer, a woman doing her job, an actor with a passion for education – could be a content provider. Obviously, I didn’t know that’s what I was learning, but looking back I think that might have been one of the most influential ideas I took from the show.
Thank you, LeVar Burton, for all of that. I’ll see you next time.**
** Man, when LeVar Burton says that it sounds like a favorite uncle promising a cool adventure. When I say it, it’s more like a creepy stalker promising to wait outside your house for you.
I'm so glad my husband talked me into saying hello.