LeVar Burton’s Words of Wisdom

As I sat in Graham Chapel at 7pm, surrounded by other members of the WashU and St. Louis community, waiting to see LeVar Burton speak, I was pretty darn excited. I was here to see him speak as part of both the Assembly Series and the Association of Black Students’ Martin Luther King Symposium Week, whose theme this year is educational literacy.

Tonight, I saw someone larger than life who has shifted the world, and discovered that that he is everything he appears to be, both on screen and off. At one point during his talk, LeVar talked about how he’d gotten to meet Fred Rogers. Burton explained: “I was so excited because I was convinced that I was about to meet the real Fred Rogers, because the guy on TV had to be an act, because nobody’s that nice. I was shocked to discover that that was Fred Rogers. He was that nice, he was that kind, he was that compassionate.”

So Mr. Burton, or LeVar, since as you told us, “Mr. Burton is my father; I’m LeVar,” if you’re reading this, know that you’ve done what Mr. Rogers has. You’ve been an inspiration both onscreen and off, and you’ve been even more than I could’ve ever expected.

I spent most of the talk furiously typing every word I could catch that came out of his mouth. LeVar shared a lot of wisdom, and I’ll pass on what I can here, knowing that there’s no way I can do this talk anything close to justice.

One thing he mentioned again and again was that everything happens for a reason. For him, he wrote a paper on Malcolm X during his freshman year, reading Malcom X’s autobiography that was written by Malcolm X and Alex Haley. The next year, when he was auditioning for Roots, he actually already knew who Haley was (the writer of Roots). As Burton told us, “there are no accidents in the universe.” If something happens to you, know that you might not know why yet, but there is a reason.

Another thing Burton emphasized was the power of reading and a quality education, which are a way to level the playing field in a world divided by race, class, gender, sexuality, and religious lines. Thus, there is no higher mission than spreading literacy and education. But more than that, reading can completely alter our view of the world. It can show us possibilities that we, as Burton said, have not even considered.

This led to Star Trek and science fiction, whose beauty comes from “allowing us to contemplate the ‘what if?’” This, Burton says, is our superpower as human beings: the “ability to imagine that which we would like to realize…to imagine that which we want to create.”

Burton’s Star Trek quote is too perfect for me to slice up, so here’s the full thing:

For me, Star Trek has always represented that hopeful vision of the future. Where we have resolved all issues of race, and class, and economy. Where we have really gotten our issues together where we have the ability to cooperate, to be able to go out and just explore the galaxy. It’s the kind of world I want to create. It’s the kind of world where I want my children and my grandchildren to grow up in.

So where does this lead? Stories are the most powerful way we have to communicate with each other, and “We have a tremendous opportunity in this moment in society to use storytelling to really fix the process of educating our children, to use this really powerful digital medium to communicate any kind of content we want to kids.” This is so much more than just entertainment; it’s shaping our entire society.

My biggest nagging question that he quickly addressed without me asking was: what is the point of trying to teach kids to read when they all want to watch TV and play videogames? Burton’s answer: meet them where they are, and take them where they want to go. “We have a very engaging opportunity with this digital realm.” In the eighties, Reading Rainbow taught children about reading through television; now it’s doing so through tablets, phones and the internet. Suddenly it makes sense; we can’t try to get rid of new technologies, we just need to adapt them to teach children good values.

Burton addresses a packed Graham Chapel.

Burton addresses a packed Graham Chapel.

Burton also got to my next question before I could ask it: what advice do you have for young people? His answer:

In life its not always important to know what the next step is. The next step will always reveal itself if you focus on the step in front of you. That next step will be there. Trust it. Trust yourself. Trust the process. When I was your age, I used to think I had to have it all figured out. I prided myself on having drive, and direction, and focus. I was kidding myself. It isn’t essential to know what’s ahead. Take the step in front of you. Life, like walking, is a controlled fall.

LeVar ended the talk with a few final words for us:

There are several things that make me giddy. Among them is the idea that you, here, at Wash U, will go out there and go on and inherit a world that will, sometimes, be hostile to your presence, simply because of the color of your skin, your gender, your ethnicity, your religion; a myriad of reasons, and yet you will go on. You are being prepared for the adventure of a lifetime, and I, for one am incredibly proud to have played a small part, and I thank you very much.

After the talk, walking out of the chapel, my friend put her finger what was so incredible about Burton tonight. It was more than how great of a speaker he is and how much good he is doing for the world. LeVar did something very simple that meant so much to us: he treated us, as my friend said, “as human beings.” It was in the small things he did. During the Q & A, he wouldn’t answer a question until after he’d introduced himself and been introduced to the asker, and asked them how they were doing. We were not just random people to him, we were people to talk to and listen to. That meant so much.

It meant so much, not just to me, when I asked him for Sci-Fi book recommendations, but to the woman who he hugged, perhaps with a tear in his eye, after she shared that she’d been an educator for over thirty years, teaching six-year olds to read, and had been using his Reading Rainbow materials for her entire career. To my friend who got to meet him, and when his assistant told him my friend had to go so he could get ready, he said “no, that’s ok, you can stay.”