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60 Minutes correspondent Byron Pitts shares his inspiring story of facing challenges along his journey to success.
The service ended that Sunday in 1996, and I trudged out of church into the torpid heat of an Atlanta summer, feeling further from God than ever.
It wasn’t the sermon or the hymns or the prayers. It was me. I was at a dead end.
I’d been a television reporter for years, working in cities up and down the East Coast. My goal had been to make it to the network level by age 35. My ultimate dream was to be on 60 Minutes someday.
But here I was, almost 36, at a local affiliate, a general assignment reporter for Atlanta’s WSB-TV. The only other job in sight was at a golf magazine. My finances were in bad shape and the golf gig would pay more than I was making. I was tempted. Really tempted.
I headed down the sidewalk, squinting against the blinding sun. I’d thought God had given me my dream, but now I wondered. How long was I going to keep banging my head against a wall? What if I never made it?
Failure was what most people expected of me growing up. I had a terrible stutter and I struggled academically—so much that I was sent to remedial classes. You can probably guess the teasing I was subjected to. “Byron’s stupid.” “His name should be Moron.”
Those taunts still drove me. I kept a tape of my worst reporting work and I watched it almost every morning, replaying my mistakes. I used it to get me going, to motivate myself to try harder. But maybe all that effort wasn’t worth it.
I glanced back at the tall brick steeple. Why hadn’t I found the comfort in worship I used to? Church was the highlight of my week when I was a kid. Sunday mornings I’d settle next to Mama into our pew at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore and drink in the wonders around me: the stunning stained-glass window framing the pulpit, the rise and fall of the preacher’s voice making Bible stories come alive, the joy on Mama’s face as she sang “His eye is on the sparrow” (so different from the weariness after a long day at her seamstress job).
Church made me happy too. It was my refuge. I didn’t stutter when I sang, and there were no teachers to call on me and make me sweat over how I was going to fake an answer. I was a scrawny kid with big glasses and an even bigger secret, a secret that didn’t seem to be such a burden on Sundays.
You see, I couldn’t read. Ten years old and I couldn’t do much more than spell my name and recognize the words “St. Katharine’s” on my school building. I was great at memorizing, and that’s how I fooled everyone. I’d get Mama or my older brother, Mac, to read me passages from my textbooks and then if a teacher called on me I would repeat what I’d heard.
I passed first, second and third grades—barely, even with Mama spending a couple hours every night going over my homework with me. She never guessed I couldn’t read. But by fourth grade, I couldn’t fake it anymore.
The school insisted I take a battery of tests. One afternoon a man came to our house with the results. I sat next to my mom and dad on the sofa, trying not to squirm. The man cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Pitts,” he said. “Byron is functionally illiterate.”
My dad looked away, frowning. My mom raised her hand to her mouth, shocked. I didn’t understand their reaction until the man went on. “We don’t know why,” he said, “but he simply has never learned to read.”
My secret was out.
“Keep your head up,” Mama told me. “We’ll just work harder. We’ll spend four hours a night on your schoolwork. We’ll pray when we start, pray when we get tired and pray when we’re done.”
We worked and worked for months. I got nowhere. I was put into remedial classes that met in the school basement. All I could see were the feet of the people walking by outside, and I felt like life was passing me by too. I knew what those people thought, That’s where the dummies are sent, the losers and failures.