When I was coming up in Tennessee in the early ’60s, the schools were segregated. I was in a school with one principal and one teacher, and it seemed like everybody was in the same grade. If you were slow, you got left behind. I got left behind.
When they put us all in regular schools, that’s when I really found out that I couldn’t read. I could never keep up with what page the teacher was on. Couldn’t do math. Couldn’t spell. Couldn’t even sit down and write a letter. But nobody knew until I was 13, when a doctor tested me and found out that I was dyslexic.
I had a lot of disappointments, not being able to read. Problems in school, people making fun of me, people laughing. I left when I was about 15. I was good with my hands, so I tried going into Job Corps. A teacher tested me and said, “Sir, I can’t teach you.” So they put me out of school again.
I went on Social Security, and I used a “payee” (because I couldn’t write checks or do banking, I had to have someone to do it for me). One day I visited the bank. I thought I’d been saving. But the payee had stolen all my money. Okay, I’ve got to get my life back, I thought. I have to be able to read to do certain things, or they’re going to come out wrong. I was walking down the street, and I looked up and saw the Central Library. I went inside and asked someone in the children’s area if they could teach me how to read.
They put me in touch with Indy Reads, which assigned me a tutor named Sue Smith. She worked with me for a long time—twice a week for two hours, for about 10 years. She had flashcards, but I didn’t like those, so we started reading the Bible and newspapers. She took her time, didn’t fuss and yell and holler at me. That built my confidence. Sue told me, “Joe, I’m learning just as much as you are.” And I could see it in her. If I learned a new word or how to spell something I didn’t think I could, I would be happy—but she would be happier.
In my second year with Indy Reads, I got a job at the Library Services Center, which is in the same building. I was reading third-grade books, and because of my age, I was afraid my new co-workers would see them. But when I finished my first book, Brer Rabbit in the Briar Patch, Sue and I rejoiced about it. I finally understood what I had read.
Sue and I talked about what I wanted to do with my life. She told me someday I could be married, have a car, a house. I said, “Wow, that sounds good, but not for me.” But sure enough, all that happened. Got my house. Got the car. I’ve been married now seven and a half years. Sue was at the wedding.
After I wrote my [first] book, all the news channels aired me on TV. I would be out somewhere, and people would come up to me. “I can’t read,” they’d whisper. “Could you get me involved in that program you’re in?”
And I do. I help them. Because someone helped me.
—Joe Cooper (as told to Evan West)
Cooper is an Indy Reads volunteer and the author of Day Dreamer to Dream Catcher and Don’t Erase Your Dreams. 2450 N. Meridian St., 317-275-4040, indyreads.org.