Beating the Odds, Book by Book

CBS correspondent Byron Pitts — now an award-winning journalist — did not start learning to read until he was 12 years old. Our black literary imagination series resumes with a discussion of blacks and illiteracy.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

In this day and age, it's hard to imagine anyone can make it through the day without being able to read. From filling out a job application or reading a notice from your landlord to navigating road signs in an unfamiliar city, illiteracy can be crippling. Yet in 2007, there are still some parts of the U.S. where half of the adult population is functionally illiterate. That's right, half.

Continuing our series on The Black Literary Imagination, we take a look at folks who have never picked up a good book because they can't read the cover. Byron Pitts is a correspondent for CBS News, but we didn't ask him to file a report for us. He's with us because before Pitts became a journalist, he was functionally illiterate.

Mr. BYRON PITTS (Correspondent, CBS): No one noticed that I couldn't read. In fact, the issue became - I finally got tested when I was having a hard time with math. So the assumption was I couldn't do math. And when we took this test, it was discovered I couldn't read the directions. It wasn't math, I couldn't read. Then people started to get involved. But, you know, it's a story you hear countless times when you talk to kids who grow up in urban America, in crowded schools. Teachers are overwhelmed, parents are overwhelmed and kids fall through the cracks. So every time I do a story about an at risk child that does something they shouldn't do, I always say to myself they're before the grace of God.

CHIDEYA: What did you do to hide the fact of what you were struggling with from your teachers, from your mother, folks like that?

Mr. PITTS: Well, in many ways, it was easy to hide in plain sight. I've always had the ability to memorize things pretty well. So when I was at home, it was always myself, my brother and sister and doing our homework at the kitchen table. My mother supervising as she cooked dinner and saw the clothes and did four other jobs. And so, when I would have an assignment, I would harass my brother and sister to help me with it. And then finally, out of frustration, they would say, well, this is what it says and they would kind of read it out loud, and I pretend that I was dumb and - I mean, they only thought I was, you know, I was a spoiled brat, geek so they were annoyed to do that to begin with. And then they would say it over and over again and finally, I would memorize -let's say if the assignment the next day was to read, we're going to read a chapter out loud. I would find a paragraph that I felt comfortable reading that my brother and sister and mom would read back to me. I'd memorized that graph(ph).

CHIDEYA: It seems to me that that must have been an awful lot of work.

Mr. PITTS: Yeah. And what happened with me - I remember, you know, my mother who was, you know, the classic southern woman, I've only seen my mother cry twice in my life. The first time, when it came on the radio that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. And the second time was when the therapist told my mother - I've never forgotten his words - I'm sorry Mrs. Pitts, your son is functionally illiterate. I wasn't sure what the words meant but I know what my mother's tears meant and that it broke her heart. That was my lowest moment in my inability to read, to know that I had brought not just pain but I brought shame to my mother.

And I mean, it was never made clear what my issue was. I mean, there was the argument that because, you know, I was attending an overcrowded school that I missed out some of the basics. There's then some indication later in life that I might be dyslexic. I remember one therapist suggested early on to my mother that perhaps I was mentally retarded. And so I would give the bulk of the credits to my mother who wouldn't accept no and kept pushing. And, you know, my faith always told me as a child that, you know, as the old saying goes, God didn't make no junk. And so I knew that there was - even when I was struggling, I knew that there was a value to my life.

CHIDEYA: When you first read a book all the way through, what was that like for you emotionally?

Mr. PITTS: Even before I read my first book, I remember the first thing I ever read out loud that wasn't memorized. I brought home a note from school from a teacher. And historically for me, that the drill was always the teacher will write a note, I'd put it at my bag, I'd bring it home, I'd hand it to my mother and she'd read it. And I would sort of go by her facial expression if it was a good note or bad note. But I remember and she finally tells the story to this day that when I brought that note home twelve and a half, twelve and three-quarters years old. I brought the note home and said, mom, I got a note from the school. Let me read it to you. And she started crying even before I started reading it. And I remember the note says, Mrs. Pitts, good news, Byron is doing better. And I mean, it gives me chills to this day. And I remember the first thing my mother said, I've read her the note, she wiped her eyes and she said glory, hallelujah. Glory, hallelujah. That was like being set free for me. And the first book I read from cover to cover was "The Old Man and the Sea."

CHIDEYA: Which most people don't get to until college.

Mr. PITTS: Right, right. And it came alive for me. And one of the primary reasons I'm a journalist today is that I love words. I mean, for me - for many people, reading is like second nature. It's like tying your shoes. But for me, words and reading are like breathing. And so every day, I get to breathe.

CHIDEYA: You certainly have influenced a lot of people with your words being a journalist of such high caliber, how did you fight your way - we already have heard how you fought your way through illiteracy to literacy. How did you fight your way from being someone who didn't have an easy time with reading to the place that you are in your profession now?

Mr. PITTS: I was also raised to believe that to those whom much is given, much is required; that there are no stumbling blocks in life just stepping stone. And certainly, throughout my career, there've always been people who've told me I couldn't. Whether that was in the beginning of my career or quite frankly at this stage of my career, there are still people who say you're not ready for that yet, you can't do that yet. I mean, I had that experience a number of years ago at CBS News that I had a - God bless him - a manager who told me I wasn't good enough to be on his show, and that it was his plan to keep me off of his show because I wasn't good enough. And he said I hope it doesn't hurt your feelings. And I looked him in the eye and said as politely as I could, I said never at once when I'm at home alone on my knees in the dark do I call your name that I am respectful of you and your position, but you don't control my destiny. I may not be the smartest, I may not be the most traveled but I am - I have certainty that I am as mentally tough as anyone in the room because my journey made me mentally tough.

So whenever I talk to kids who come from - who have learning issues, who come from tough environments, I say, you know, embrace the gift that you are mentally tough, that you have gotten to this point in your life in part because you're mentally tough. And you can take that mental toughness and translate it into anything to be anybody that you want to be.

CHIDEYA: Well, on that note, a perfect note, Byron, thank you.

Mr. PITTS: My pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Byron Pitts is a correspondent for CBS News.

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