June 17, 2006
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 the age of 35. My ultimate goal was to be a correspondent for 60 Minutes someday.
But here I was, almost 36, at a local affiliate, a general assignment reporter for Alanta’s WSB-TV. The only other job in sight was for 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 thought God had given me a dream, but now I wondered if He really cared what I did. How long was I going to keep banging my head against the wall? What if I never made it?
Failure is what most people expected of me growing up. I had a terrible stutter and I struggled academically. I spent a lot of time in remedial classes. I was subjected to lots of ridicule, “Byron’s stupid.” “His name should be Moron.” I heard the whispering and those taunts drove me to try harder even though I felt inferior.
Those memories drove me to keep a tape of my worst reporting work and I watched it almost every morning, replaying my mistakes as I tried to learn from them. I used the tape to get me going, to motivate myself to try harder. But maybe all that effort wasn’t worth it. I was at a dead end with no where to go.
I glanced back at the tall brick steeple. Why hadn’t I found the comfort in worship that I used to? Had God deserted me? Church was the highlight of my week when I was a kid. Sunday mornings I’d settle next to Mama in 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 on her face after a long day at her seamstress job.
Church made me happy because it made Mama happy. But it also made me happy for another reason. 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 recognise the words “St Katharine’s” on my school building. My secret kept me feeling inferior and scared someone would find out. I tried so hard, but I just couldn’t get it. I was falling farther and farther behind. I was a scared little boy.
I was great at memorizing and that’s how I was able to get through. I’d get Mama or my older brother, Mac, to read passages from my textbooks and then if a teacher called on me, I would repeat what I’d heard, word for word.
I passed first, second and then 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. I was too scared and ashamed to tell her or anyone. I thought there was something wrong with me. Everyone else could do things I thought, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know why because I tried really hard.
But by the fouth grade, I couldn’t fake it any longer. The school knew something was wrong.
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 my dad on the sofa, trying not to squirm. I was so scared. Would Mama disown me? The man cleared his throat. “I’m sorry Mr. and Mrs. Pitts, but Byron is functionally illiterate.” I was crying inside. The only kid on the planet who couldn’t learn and now everyone knew. I knew then why kids put on fronts. If I had one, I would have put it on to hide. But for me, there was nowhere to go.
My dad looked away, frowning. My mom raised her hand to her mouth, shocked. I felt deserted by the two people I needed the most. I was so scared. The man went on. “We don’t know why, but he has never learned to read.” My secret was out.
Mama came to my rescue. She looked at me in front of my dad and the School Administrator and said, “Keep your head up, son. We will get through this. We’ll just work harder. We will spend four hours a night on your homework. We will pray when we start, pray when we get tired and pray when we finish. The Lord will get us through this.”
We worked for months and months, but it didn’t seem I could get out of the starting gate. I could learn my homework, but I just couldn’t grasp rote memory reading. I couldn’t put the alphabet together. But Mama never gave up and she constantly told me to trust the Lord to build my foundation.
I was put in remedial classes at school that met in the school basement. All I could see were the feet of the people walking by outside and I felt life was passing me by. Did the Lord really care like Mama said He did? I cried often when no one was looking. No one tried harder than me, yet everyone got it but me. I knew what those people outside thought, “That’s where the dummies are sent. Those kids are losers and failures.” And for me, I agreed with them. I was a dummy, loser and failure. My stuttering was worse. It wasn’t fair.
One day at home I was watching TV and saw a commercial for a reading program for adults. “If they can teach grown-ups,” I said to Mama, “Maybe they can teach me.” Mama called the program. Soon, a special monitor was delivered to our house. It cost Mama far more than she could afford. Mama sacrificed a lot for me over the years…
I put slides in it that displayed words, letters and pictures. Day after day, I sat in front of it, trying to learn what the different letters looked and sounded like. “I’m never going to get this.” I told Mama. “Everyone is right. I’m a m-m-moran.” Mama had heard me use the moran word one time too many. She was ready with her speech…
“Son, everyone doesn’t say that. Everyone knows how hard you try. But it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or says, it only matters what you think and say. God is listening. He wants to know that you trust him. God is doing something in your life that we don’t understand. But don’t give up on God and don’t give up on yourself. Please don’t ever use that word again. You are special. When God is doing something in someone’s life that He is not doing in everyone else’s life, that person is special to God. Always remember that, son; cling to it.”
“Byron, did I ever tell you about the job I had driving a tractor-trailer? I wrestled with shifting those gears every day and people laughed at me. But I didn’t let that bother me. I laughed with them. I smiled at them. But I kept my eyes on what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn to shift those gears. And I finally got it. I could shift as well as any of them. After I got it, no one remembered the struggle. No one remembered the past. They just treated me like a truck driver. You will do this. You just have to keep working at it and above all, trust the Lord to help you learn.”
I took her words to heart. I sat with that monitor and with my school books and studied. I sounded out words over and over. I prayed just like Mama said-when I started, when I got tired and when I finished; especially when I got tired. My simple prayer? “Lord, please help me to read.”
Toward the end of the sixth grade, my teacher sent me home with a note. I called Mama and told her she had to come home immediately so I could show it to her. She knew it was just a note and it could wait, but she also knew how important it was to me, so she came home. She sat down at the dining room table and listened attentively.
I stood next to her and carefully unfolded the note and read it slowly. “Byron is doing much better at school. He is making p-p-progress.” My stuttering wasn’t nearly as bad as it was and this was the first time, someone besides Mama affirmed me. I looked at Mama. She was crying. God had come to her son’s rescue. She hugged me and kept whispering “Lord, thank you.”
I worked even harder in junior high and high school. I had a lot of catching up to do. But now I could at least somewhat read. I wanted to go to college. I studied hard. Then one day, Mama dropped me off at Ohio Wesleyan University. It was one of the proudest and most grateful days of my life. Grateful to Mama and God. Mama was so proud, but you could always hear her whispering, “Lord, thank you.”
I was beginning a new trek, but starting college for me was academic culture shock. I felt so out of my league. This was so out of my depth, I felt like I was back in the fourth grade again, sounding out words while my classmates were buzzing through entire books. I failed my freshman English class.
My English professor called me into his office. “I’ll make this brief. You are not Ohio Wesleyan material. I think you should leave this university.” He looked me straight in the eyes. “That’s all. Good luck to you.”
I left his office numb. Maybe I would never get out of the basement no matter how hard I tried. It would break Mama’s heart if I left college, but what else could I do? I prayed.
I went to University Hall and picked up the forms to withdraw from school. Papers in hand, I sank down on a bench outside and burst into tears-nose running, shoulder shaking tears. “Young man, are you okay?” someone asked. I looked up and a middle aged woman was standing there.
Maybe it was the kindness in her expression, but I blurted, “I don’t belong h-h-here. I was fooling myself to think I could make it.” Everything poured out of me; what my professor said, how hard I tried, how ashamed I was to be failing and how stupid I felt. I was crying, sniffling and stuttering.
“That’s nonsense. Promise you will speak to me tomorrow before you make any decision to drop out. My name is Ulle, Ulle Lewis. My office is on the second floor of Slocum Hall. I also am an English Professor. Byron, we can do this, if you don’t give up. Please see me tomorrow at eleven.” The Lord had sent my angel.
She met with me three, sometimes four hours a week. She went over my writing assignments, correcting the grammar, punctuation and sentence structure. When I got those basics down, she made me set higher goals. “Never settle for less,” she constantly told me. “Push harder and you will see you can climb a lot higher than you thought. You are smart. You just have a minor glitch and we will run over that.” Dr. Lewis taught me to love the written word.
And the spoken word? The person who changed my life there was my speech professor, Ed Robinson. “How long have you stuttered?” he asked me gruffly one day after I stumbled over an answer in class. “I think I can help you.” And he did. He improvised as we went along. I practiced speaking with pencil in my mouth, read Shakespeare forward and then backward, sing sentences before I spoke them and anything else he could think of to get me to speak without being self conscious.
He was about to change my life and set my career in motion. He encouraged me to host a show on the college radio station. Then it happened. I never stuttered on the air and I fell in love with broadcasting. I discovered my calling.
I graduated with a degree in journalism. It was Dr. Lewis and Dr. Robinson that made it happen. Without them, I couldn’t have gotten out of the starting gate. Thank you both from the bottom of my heart. And thank you Lord for sending Dr. Lewis and Dr. Robinson. It is awesome professors like these, that make Ohio Wesleyan the great University that it is.
I landed a reporting job at WNCT-TV in Greenville, North Carolina. From there I worked my way up to TV stations in bigger markets like Norfolk, Orlando, Tampa, Boston and now Atlanta.
Which brings us full circle. Here I was in the heat of a Georgia summer, trudging down the sidewalk after church, wondering if broadcasting was the right path after all.I was tired of worrying about how to pay the bills, and telling myself, “When I get to the network, everything will be okay.”
Yes, I was having a little pity party. “All those people who helped me and who believed in me; their trust must have been unfounded. Where had my struggles gotten me? This was not my dream.
I stepped into the intersection. Suddenly I sensed something to my right and jumped back on the curb. A car zipped past, just inches from me. A couple of birds that had darted up from the road circled in front of me. They made me think of the words of Mama’s favorite hymn, “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.”
In that moment, I felt like the little boy sitting next to Mama in the pew at New Shiloh, praying that someday I’d be able to read and to overcome my stuttering. Hadn’t that happened? God answered that prayer and threw in a college degree and a career in broadcast journalism. What was I doing, having a pity party? I should be celebrating and rejoicing over how far the Lord had brought me. At that moment, I knew He wasn’t finished.
I had spent so much time replaying the worst of times, I had forgotten all that Mama, my professors and the Lord had taught me; “Replay the best of times and keep your eye on the prize. Keep on going. Don’t stop now.” I threw away my old tapes and my new daily ritual started with Scripture and prayer. “Lord, for now on, I am going to trust you and your purpose for me. It is your plan, not my plan, that I will wait for and look forward to.”
The Bible helped me to reconnect to the reasons I wanted to be a broadcast journalist; telling stories that help people, inform them and inspire them. Those goals would make Mama’s and my professors’ work pay dividends. I owed that to them, myself and to God.
When an opportunity came up at CBS in Washington D.C., I was ready. And the chance to work at 60 Minutes, my dream job? That finally came too.
I keep a Bible here in my office at 60 Minutes. It’s the first thing I read in the mornings, even before my e-mail. One of my favorite passages is from Luke: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.” Not one of us is forgotten either.
The Right Stuff By Byron Pitts