A part of my childhood died this week when I heard an interview on NPR with LeVar Burton, the brilliantly talented host of the PBS children's television show, Reading Rainbow, who announced that his 26-year-long edutainment program is officially coming to an end.
Burton, whose acting career is studded with conscious role choices (think Kunta Kinte Roots, the epic created by Alex Haley, or Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: the Next Generation), sounded truly sorry that his show, which encouraged children not only to read, but to become active participants in their communities, would no longer be on the air. I remember being transfixed by the programs, which always showcased young kids championing their favorite books, kids who could have been my neighbors or classmates, and often included field trips that were related to each show's theme.
I remember one show in particular, in which Burton interviewed a man who constructed great works of art out of discarded furniture, most of which he found in the city dump. Burton followed him into his garage, and together they picked apart an old bureau, which the man then repainted and redesigned into an amazing collage piece. It was a revelation to me that such everyday things could be truly beautiful. And when LeVar said something was possible, it was possible. That very night I remember tearing through my bedroom for old newspapers, magazines, and postcards, ripping out all my favorite photographs and rearranging them onto a big cardboard box. This box became my "idea box," the one I returned to whenever I had a story in mind.
It later occurred to me that Burton had created the world's best job for a literature major. I mean, the very concept of the program was to promote literacy, to tell stories, inspire new generations of readers, writers, and thinkers. And think of what his program did to boost the careers of hundreds of children's book writers. As a child, I wanted more than anything to be that kid with her chosen book, explaining all the critical plot points during the last two minutes of the program, my face bobbing into view while a virtual image of the book opened and closed. As an adult, I wanted that to be my book, or that producer to be me.
But now, more than anything, I just wish that this show, this truly noble, innovative program, could triple its lifespan, and thus make more kids want to be that kid.
His interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation was followed by a series of calls, all from listeners who, like me, had grown up with Reading Rainbow, or had children who had competed in his writing contests. Burton sounded calm, yet tragically defeated, and I wondered why it is that these productions of true quality--reading shows for children, public radio news programs, heck, public education in general--are so often scrapped for the ones that have no moral or social core. Do we really need another reality show? Or trendy romantic comedy?
No. We need someone who has the courage to say: "This is one opinion -- now go out there and create your own."