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For this educator dyslexia didn’t mean defeat

Reading, writing and ridicule

By George Cope as told to Isaac Olivarez

Editor’s note: George Cope, 52, president of Zion Bible Institute, was born with retention dyslexia, a brain condition that restricts his ability to read or retain written information. Despite years of humiliation and ridicule in grade school because of his undiagnosed learning disability, Cope stayed true to the Christian faith his parents, former U.S. A/G missionaries Clarence and Irene Cope, instilled in him. After 26 years of pastoral ministry, he became a leading educator. But the road wasn’t easy.

My problem surfaced in first grade. The alphabet was above the chalkboard as in any elementary classroom. The teacher taught us the letters of the alphabet and after three months gave us our first test. She called out a letter and each student had to go to the board and point to the correct letter. They were praised for finding the correct letters. At the end of the week she asked, “Has everybody been to the board?” Someone hollered out, “George hasn’t.” She looked at me and said, “Son, have you been to the board?”

“No, ma’am, I haven’t.”

She handed me a pointer and I went to the board. She called out a letter. I confidently went to the letter I thought was the letter she called and pointed to it.

George Cope

“Son, that’s not the letter,” she said. Everybody in the classroom laughed. “This isn’t a game. I’m going to give you another chance.”

She gave me another letter and I went confidently to a letter and pointed to it.

“Is that the letter?” my teacher asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Son, that’s not the letter.”

Everybody laughed louder.

“George, I will not allow you to disrupt my classroom by making everybody laugh,” she said. “I’m going to give you one more chance.”

She called out a letter, and I pointed out the wrong one, again.

Everybody was laughing vehemently at that point.

“Come here,” my teacher said.

I walked to her and she took the wooden pointer from me.

“Hold out your hands,” she said.

I stretched out my hands and she slapped them with the pointer. I walked back to my chair sobbing. I had done my very best. I was humiliated.

Kids yelled, “You’re stupid, you’re dumb.” When I sat down I thought, If this is education, I’ll never learn again.

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Troubled years
School became a living nightmare. I hated going to sleep at night because I knew going to bed meant waking up and going to school the next day. For the first six grades of school I never made a passing grade.

When you can’t read, write or distinguish letters as a child, you find yourself in a vortex of inner pain. I would shut down. I would have panic attacks. I was so afraid of tests because it would prove I didn’t know anything. I hated school because all school did to me was portray me as stupid. I couldn’t read or write and I was constantly reminded that I was not going to amount to anything.

In fourth grade my teacher asked me questions from a test orally. At the end of our talk she said, “George, you’ve just passed the test!”

But she still failed me because I couldn’t put my answers on paper. She retired after that year and never told my fifth-grade teacher that if I took a test orally, maybe I could pass. I was back into the nightmare.

I hated people who made fun of me. When students said, “You’re stupid,” or “Why can’t you pass?” I killed them in my heart because they hurt me with their words.

My question was, “God, why would You make me this way? Why is it my sister makes straight A’s and my life is filled with hell, darkness and turmoil?”

In fifth grade my teacher suggested to my mother that my parents put me in a school for the mentally retarded. My mother said, “He may be slow, but he’s not retarded.”

By the time I was in junior high I wanted to commit suicide but was too afraid to do anything about it. Instead I lived my life feeling useless.

By ninth grade I still couldn’t spell my parents’ first names. I only made it to ninth grade because teachers pushed me through since I wasn’t a troublemaker. My 12th-grade homeroom teacher once told me, “George, I can’t explain you. I don’t understand you. But I believe you’re going to make it someday if you just keep trying.” Those were the only positive words I ever received from an educator in 12 years of schooling.

Divine call
All I had known through school was academic failure. But a spiritual experience in May 1960 not only helped me get through the tough times, it transformed my life.

At age 9, I committed my life to Jesus Christ at Creighton Assembly of God in Mobile, Ala. My dad was the preacher; I was on the second row. I knew I had to declare I was a sinner. When I asked Jesus to forgive my sins, I felt the weight of my sins leave. When I repented, I repented of being a murderer. The Holy Spirit convicted me of how I had killed people in my heart when they made fun of me. I felt the weight of that sin leave my heart and the grace of God pour in. I knew I was saved.

I went to youth camp at Oak Mountain State Park outside of Birmingham eight summers in a row. At age 13 I was baptized in the Holy Spirit at the youth camp. The next night the speaker invited us to wait in the presence of God. I was kneeling on the floor in the middle of the room. Then I heard an audible voice say, “George Cope, I call you to be a pastor.” I lifted my head and looked around to see the man who called my name. There was no adult within 30 feet of me. I was in a sea of 13-year-olds.

I bowed my head and said, “God, how can I be a pastor? I can’t read or write!”

There was an inner witness that said, “I’ll take care of that.”

I couldn’t wait to tell my parents. When our old yellow church school bus pulled up, they were waiting.

“Mom, you won’t believe it. God called me into ministry!” I yelled from the bus. I was so excited. I didn’t understand it, but I never doubted my call.

I enrolled at Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo., in 1970 and graduated four years later. Throughout college I made steady C’s and D’s. In the fall semester of my senior year I had a conversation with professor Donald Johns that changed my life. His class was known as the toughest class at school.

“Why haven’t you taken my class?” he joked. “Are you waiting for me to die?” I told him I was afraid to take his class.

I took it that semester.

Two weeks into the class, he walked in one day and said, “I don’t know why, but I feel impressed to say this: The best pastors of churches, I’ve discovered, are C students.” He said it, then went on with his lecture.

He died a week later.

God’s design
In 1982 I received an invitation to teach Praise The Lord’s An Hour in the Word on TV. As I prepared one night for the show, the Holy Spirit told me to tell my story on television. I said, “God, I’ve never told my story. I’m not going to tell it now on TV.” I fought with God for more than two hours.

The next day I shared my story. When we prayed at the end of the program, the altars filled with people. When I left, the Holy Spirit said, “You have seen today what I can do with your story. Whenever I prompt you to tell the story, wherever you are, tell it because it brings glory to Me, not to you.”

Psalm 139 is the one portion of Scripture through which God has given me my identity. “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:15,16, NIV).

For 26 years I was afraid of education. In May 2003 I graduated with a master’s degree in leadership studies from Vanguard University (A/G) in Costa Mesa, Calif. I am in the second year of my doctor of ministries program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.

I still see letters backwards. It takes me longer to read and prepare for sermons or a class. There are many people who are smarter and more qualified than I am. But it’s just like God to take a dyslexic child and make him a college president.

George Cope has been president of Zion Bible Institute, an A/G Bible school in Barrington, R.I., since June 2000.

Isaac Olivarez is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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