If It Weren't For LeVar Burton, I Wouldn't Have My Ph.D.

"I almost dropped out of graduate school three times. But I didn’t. One thing that kept me going was something I’d learned from 'Reading Rainbow.'"
LeVar Burton's television career includes over two decades as the host of the popular children's show "Reading Rainbow," which ran on public TV from 1983 to 2006.
LeVar Burton's television career includes over two decades as the host of the popular children's show "Reading Rainbow," which ran on public TV from 1983 to 2006.
MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images via Getty Images

I can still remember the first notes of the opening sequence to “Reading Rainbow.” An animated butterfly emerges, leaving behind a rainbow-colored trail. Everything about it is distinctively ’80s, from the synthesizer to the whimsical graphics.

The lyrics tell us we can “go anywhere” and “be anything.” Before cynicism creeps in, our beloved host, LeVar Burton, appears and delivers on the promise of this painfully optimistic song. Burton delights us with creatures that exist only in our imagination, people unlike anyone who lives in our neighborhood, and destinations few of us will travel to in our lifetime.

Burton had become a reliable presence in a world that was anything but for me. The summer after my seventh birthday began with a stranger breaking into my family’s home and holding us at gunpoint. He stole all the valuables he could find along with any shred of security I’d felt within the walls of that house.

Just weeks later, my dad’s relatives were gathering in New York for a reunion we’d been planning all summer. My immediate family never made it. Two days before our scheduled departure, my dad succumbed to a massive heart attack. I was playing at a friend’s house blissfully unaware that not far away my dad was taking his last breaths.

My dad’s death left me reeling. I couldn’t concentrate when school started or even get through a page of text. I sought refuge in the TV shows and characters that filled my home with light and music. I gravitated to “Reading Rainbow” ― but not because I was interested in books.

In fact, it was quite the opposite. I hated reading. I rarely ever picked up a book outside of school. Whenever my mom dragged me to the library, I would sit in a chair staring blankly while she pored over the latest titles from Margaret Yorke.

My family of avid readers started to take notice.

“I’ve never seen girls like you — always watching TV. Your cousins love to read. You’ll never see them without a book,” I heard repeatedly from my aunts.

To my West Indian family, intellect was just shy of godliness. If you weren’t reading, you weren’t doing anything worthwhile. They couldn’t understand why I would watch a TV show about reading instead of just reading a book. It was simple to me: Watching “Reading Rainbow” didn’t ask a lot of me. I didn’t have to focus and engage as much as when I would read a book. The barrier to entry was so much lower. It didn’t stress me out the way the silence and concentration of reading did (not to mention where my mind often wandered while I was sitting in that silence). I could turn it on, tune out the world and the noise in my head, and instantly become absorbed in the story.

I didn’t understand why I disliked reading so much until graduate school. I would slog through the assigned readings only to find that I couldn’t remember anything I’d read. My classmates would trade observations about the ego-syntonic behaviors of people with personality disorders while my mind drifted to the latest episodes of “Teen Mom” and “Jersey Shore.”

Then, in one of my classes, we discussed psychological trauma and its long-term impact on attention and memory. My professor explained how trauma can rewire your brain, so you come to expect a threat when there isn’t one present. Ironically, the times I believed nothing bad could happen ended up scarring me most.

More than 20 years have passed since the home invasion and my dad’s death. Newer losses are fresh on my mind. Yet, I can still feel the terrazzo floor where I cowered in front of that gunman and I can still see the look on my mom’s face when she told us our dad was never coming home ever again. Dealing with trauma can take up so much space in our brain, it ends up leaving little room for tasks that demand more focus and attention.

The author, age 10 months, with her father.
The author, age 10 months, with her father.
Courtesy of Nandini Maharaj

Research on young adults confirms the negative impact of childhood trauma on reading and academic performance. Even after earning a spot at a four-year college, students with a history of trauma have difficulty adjusting, which can put their degree completion at risk. Students with post-traumatic stress disorder often demonstrate maladaptive thinking (e.g., self-consciousness, a belief that thoughts are uncontrollable) which contributes to poor reading comprehension. Moreover, racialized students often experience adverse events and trauma symptoms and this in turn affects their education.

For many women and Black, Indigenous and people of color, the barriers to earning a Ph.D. ― from discrimination to economic disparities ― begin at the admission process and continue through to the debt we incur while undertaking our degree. Those barriers have consequences: Of the approximately 55,000 people to earn a doctorate from a university in the U.S. in 2018, only 3% were Black women.

When you combine the huge personal and financial hardships that many students face with trauma and PTSD, it’s an understatement to say that doing something as seemingly simple as reading is a challenge.

Facing my difficulties with reading was something I had to do over and over again throughout my Ph.D., and because reading is a foundation for virtually every aspect of my studies, I almost dropped out of school twice during my first year, and then a third time when I was at the halfway mark. But I didn’t. One big thing that kept me going was something I’d learned from LeVar Burton.

After my dog passed away, I was reading an article by a psychologist who referred to hope as “rainbows in the mind.” Inspired by the phrase, I started looking up old clips of “Reading Rainbow” online and rediscovered one particular video I remembered from my childhood.

In the episode, Burton visits a dairy farm, even trying his hand at milking a cow. He shows the viewer how milk can be made into ice cream, likening the different flavors to the variety of books available. His closing message is that milk is part of a bigger process ― it signals the possibility of creating something new.

When I saw that episode again so many years after I first watched it, I was writing a dissertation on individuals with cancer and their relationships with their pets during treatment. For me, reading had always been a means to an end. I thought I just needed to read enough to write the book report or ace the exam. It was never a joy or seen as a key to unlock mysteries. Burton’s simple message about milk reminded me of the bigger process. Reading was necessary for me to do the things I wanted to do. To learn more about the things I wanted to learn. People had entrusted me with their stories and I desperately wanted to tell them ― and I couldn’t do that without reading as an integral part of that undertaking. From that moment, everything changed.

The author, age 8, pretending to read a book.
The author, age 8, pretending to read a book.
Courtesy of Nandini Maharaj

In Latin, the word for reading, legere, literally means to “pick out” or “choose.” I have lived with the effects of trauma my entire life, but finally, with the help of what I’d learned from Burton, I realized that I have the opportunity to pick out words on a page every day ― and that this opportunity isn’t a burden, it’s a gift.

Once this piece clicked into place, I saw that reading calls on us to empathize with others ― either the characters or the writers themselves ― and, hopefully, our understanding of ourselves and others changes when we read and reflect on someone else’s story. I finally realized that I get to choose what stories I will read, what lives I will discover in those stories, and how I will tell my own, and others’, stories in turn. Rather than seeing reading as boring or drudgery, I now know that reading is a fundamental part of a bigger process ― the key to interpreting and appreciating the world around me ― and that is powerful.

Burton was telling us all along that we shouldn’t just blindly listen to the adults in the room. Instead, we need to find what sparks our curiosity — discern the ice cream flavor we love the most or discover new ones we didn’t even know existed. We need to pick out what speaks to us from inside a book and then chase it off the page into our lives. And we need to do this at every age.

I wish I had understood this earlier in my life, but I’m glad that I gleaned it when I did. I received my Ph.D. in public health and counseling psychology and I’m now working as a freelance writer. Every day I get to learn about and help tell stories. I get to use what I’ve been taught ― and the choices I’ve made ― to help other people. And, as strange as it might sound, I might not have gotten here without the help of LeVar Burton or the beautiful, magical, life-changing “Reading Rainbow.” And I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Nandini Maharaj, Ph.D., is a freelance writer covering mental health, career, identity and relationships. Her essays have appeared in HuffPost Canada, Animal Wellness, POPSUGAR and Introvert, Dear. She is a dog mom to Dally, Rusty and Frankie.

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