Growing up with a stutter made Michael Pittman Jr. an easy target for teasing and bullying.
Then around age 8, he discovered something that helped him speak clearly and smoothly: reading out loud. He embraced the practice and his confidence swelled. He didn’t realize it at the time, he told starstruck students at an elementary school 10 minutes from USC’s University Park Campus, but that simple act put him on a path to success.
“I read because it helps me talk and be able to spread what I’m thinking,” he said. “When you read more, you know more and are more likely to share that with others. Knowledge is power!”
Now a senior studying sociology at USC, where he’s a star wide receiver for the USC Trojans football team, Pittman dropped into Tom Bradley Global Awareness Magnet Elementary School on a recent weekday to promote good reading habits through a yearlong program called Readers of Troy. The campaign encourages local kids to improve their reading skills, with special prizes and surprise visits from USC student-athletes as an added bonus.
It’s part of Trojan Outreach, the broader community service program that brings hundreds of student-athletes from USC’s 21 varsity sports into the neighborhoods of Los Angeles to perform volunteer work.
Hearing from a role model like Pittman, who hails from nearby Woodland Hills, emphasizes the importance of reading and that schoolwork is invaluable, said Lisa Regan DeRoss, principal at Tom Bradley Magnet and a three-time USC alumna.
“His journey overcoming his challenges with becoming a reader and a public speaker mirrors what many of my students here experience,” she said. “For them to see a model like him, who has achieved his dream and is now playing Division I college football at a university right down the street, means my students can see a little bit of themselves in him.”
USC student-athletes promote reading through community outreach program
Pittman’s visit is just one of several dozen planned for eight elementary schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District this year. USC student-athletes from various sports will be surprising children with unexpected appearances through March.
In addition to describing how reading contributed to their success, they will hand out novelty reading glasses bearing a Readers of Troy logo to each kid, along with Trojans memorabilia and other prizes. In April, the school with the most hours of reading logged by its students will have its library renovated courtesy of USC, with Trojan student-athletes unveiling the USC Athletics-themed redesign to the winning school and its students.
“The Readers of Troy program aims to plant the seed within our youth that they are students first,” said McCall Hall, director of community outreach for USC Athletics. “We only use the term student-athletes for our Trojans to reaffirm that your education comes first, sports come second. We want LAUSD students to embrace student-first culture, too, moving forward.”
To keep her students fired up about the Readers of Troy contest, Regan DeRoss plans to remind them of Pittman’s visit regularly. She is also devising some friendly competitions among classes to see who can log the most reading during the coming months.
“It really helps to build that unity within a classroom for them to come together as a community of readers as well as a family,” she said. “I also hope to share with my students my own love of reading and how much reading opened doors for me. … It’s a window into the world.”
Trojan wide receiver encourages local kids to explore books
During his surprise visit with second- to fifth-grade students at Tom Bradley Magnet, Pittman talked about strategies to overcome bullying, answered questions, led chants of “Reading leads to succeeding!” and gave a shoutout to his favorite book as a toddler: If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
After asking the roomful of rambunctious kids if they played sports, like he does, or had other interests outside of school, he stressed the importance of balancing those pursuits with their studies.
“You have to balance out schoolwork, athletics and having fun — because everyone likes to have fun, right?” Pittman said. “But you can’t spend hours just playing games and putting off your schoolwork. You have to get it done.”
He joined the students in a reading of the picture book Bats at the Library by Brian Lies, then gave out Trojan Outreach T-shirts and high-fives as the youngsters filed past on their way back to class.
Despite his busy schedule as a USC student-athlete, Pittman said he was gratified to have the opportunity to visit the school and use his platform to share a positive message: “It’s a chance to come help out the kids, and anything I can do to help out and give back, I’m always going to jump on that.”