this educator dyslexia didn’t mean defeat
writing and ridicule
Cope as told to Isaac Olivarez
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?”
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
not the letter,” she said. Everybody in the classroom laughed.
“This isn’t a game. I’m going to give you another
She gave me another
letter and I went confidently to a letter and pointed to it.
“Is that the
letter?” my teacher asked.
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.
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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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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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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