CBS's Late Bloomer
Monday, May 7, 2007; 7:32 AM
NEW YORK--Byron Pitts was chatting with students at a Harlem charter school the day before a recent visit by President Bush when the CBS correspondent had a realization: They viewed him as just another empty suit who couldn't possibly understand their problems. Little did they know.
"When I was your age," he told them, "I couldn't read."
That was no exaggeration. When Pitts was 12, officials at Baltimore's Archbishop Curley High School summoned his mother to report that tests had determined her son was "functionally illiterate." She broke into tears.
"It was humiliating. It was awful," Pitts says. "You sort of live your life in disguise. . . . When you live in the 'hood, you have to wear a mask." Pitts didn't even consider his inability to read his biggest problem; he was far more upset over his constant stuttering.
How Pitts overcame that inauspicious start to excel in a profession built on writing and speaking is as good a story as any that he has covered. To this day, at a public event he will fight to get one of the first copies of a press release because he needs time to digest it. He says his wife can finish a book three or four times as fast as he can.
"I'm not ashamed of my reading difficulties, but I'm aware of my slowness," says Pitts, 46.
When he was young, Pitts says, he memorized his reading assignments with help from an older brother and sister as they did their homework at the kitchen table. If he had to read aloud in class, he would commit a few sentences to memory and then raise his hand at the right moment. Since he was quiet and polite, Pitts says, teachers mostly left him alone.
His mother, Clarice, who after a divorce raised the kids as a single mother, says she knew Byron had problems in the third grade, but says authorities at his Catholic school conducted psychological tests and said they could find no problem. At home young Pitts preferred watching television; the only reading material regularly in the house, he says, was Ebony, Jet and the Bible.
After the diagnosis at 12, she sent away for a machine that her son had seen advertised on television that provided help with phonics and other basic reading skills.
Pitts says he began to make progress after that and became a B student in high school. His mother, who was working in a factory making London Fog raincoats, had something to do with his improved grades.
"I told him he couldn't play Little League football unless he got a B or above," she says. "I had the same rule in high school. He really started studying hard because he wanted to play football."
But Pitts remained in remedial reading classes, and things got harder when he got to Ohio Wesleyan University.As he struggled on academic probation, a freshman English teacher told him: "Mr. Pitts, you're wasting my time and the government's money. You're not Ohio Wesleyan material and you shouldn't be here." Pitts walked away in tears and went to the administrative office the next day to withdraw.