A man died and the world died with him. His physical body didn’t experience death. Nevertheless, the day I met him was the demise of his world as he knew it. The life he led prior to October 15, 1995, ceased to exist, and the courage he summoned that day gave birth to my American Idol.
On this day, thirty-eight year old Joe Cooper walked into his neighborhood library and asked the librarian, “Would you teach me to read?” These six words metamorphed his world from the depths of hell to the Grace of God; from the skid rows of existence to a viable cultural environment; from the dregs of society to acceptance as a valued citizen.
Close your eyes and try to imagine the embarrassment of buying what you thought was a can of cookies by its picture on the label, only to discover a can of Crisco. Imagine the terror of being dumped at the end of the bus line at midnight because you could not read the street signs to know when to exit the bus, walking until 3 a.m. back home, gauging tall downtown buildings for your directions. Have you ever given more than a passing thought to reading your child’s report card? Or filling out the doctor’s questionnaire? Or reading a story to your grandchild? Or an email? Do you think twice before signing your name in cursive?
Joe has. He knows—and has suffered more than ten men could have endured—the ramifications of being an illiterate, southern, black male who slipped through the cracks, and landed all the way to 11th grade in Tennessee, still reading below kindergarten level. Quitting school with the vicariously tattooed “Untrainable” on his forehead, his pathway to the depths of hell continued from juvenile detention to prison to army to half-way houses to abandoned cars to homeless shelters to under bridge embankments to bus stations to park benches to cardboard box shelters. Along this precarious route his world encountered alcohol, drugs, hunger, pandering, filth, begging, trash can leftovers, and even a stint as a gigolo to a wealthy older woman who fried his chicken in Clorox as retribution for his flirting with a young black chick at a party she threw. That landed him in the hospital for three days where the doc said he had enough bleach in his system to do ten loads of wash. Her summary: “I ain’t fattening up no frog for no snake.”
At 38, Joe shed his frog skin and became a prince. He learned to read and his new knowledge gave birth to his new world, a world he never dreamed could exist for him. This newly acquired knowledge brought with it an eleven-year full-time job at the library, surrounded by his former enemy, the printed word. Also accompanying this was his first driver’s license at the age of forty-two, purchase of his first home, two new cars, a checking/savings account with an IRA, and a brand new wife—his first and only—three years ago. His most amazing achievement is the fact that he is a public speaker who gives back to a society to which he is grateful, saving the lives of young people destined to go down the same path he trod, save for the Grace of God and a caring Joe Cooper.
What does this all have to do with me? I was his tutor. The pride I feel knowing that I held a small part in making this man’s old world die, and a new one immerges is beyond words. I helped Joe learn how to read and write, pass a driver’s exam, balance his checkbook, buy groceries without getting ripped off, fill out a job application to gain employment, watch a symphony concert and write an essay about the experience, understand his medicine prescription directions, read the back of a box of cake mix, buy a car, fill out a mortgage application, get a credit report, purchase a new home, and read his very first book, Br’er Rabbit. I watched as he daily appeared at his tutoring classes, graduating from head phones blaring in his ear to holding a book in his hands, reading with interest about Malcolm X.
I helped him write his life story, Day Dreamer to Dream Catcher, a booklet which he passes out to juvenile centers, prisons, schools, and business that sponsor his speaking engagements. I have watched him grow as a person, a speaker, and a citizen eager to “pay it forward.” My part was easy, but having a desire and dedication to help just one other person in this world, that power of one, was a necessity. Perseverance was a constant companion in my back pocket.
I am an ordinary person and my life is hum-drum and anyone who knows their ABC’s can teach another to read just as I did, with a little effort. Unlike mine, however, Joe’s life is phenomenal; that of a man who went from a day dreamer to dream catcher. The quality of people’s accomplishments is not measured by where they now stand, but from the point from which they started. A Rockefeller starts as a millionaire and simply becomes a richer millionaire. Joe’s starting point was much further back on the spectrum. He has earned every accomplishment, every mile of admiration I hold for him as my true American Idol. Joe is that substance from which idols are truly made, not born