Fishman: For these sisters, life begins with ABCs



Ginger Cupp, left, and her sister Cindy look over material they designed and published to help kindergarten students learn to read.
Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News

Some people can play piano without being taught. Others can remember - and calculate - strings of numbers. Still others can stick something in concrete and make it grow.

Cindy Cupp can teach reading. To "regular" students. To kids who aren't catching on. To illiterate adults.

Yes, she has a doctorate in education from the University of Georgia. But just as important, she's energetic, inventive and practical. And straightforward. She knows how to say the emperor is walking around without clothes.

As a young teacher, Cupp looked at the traditional materials and found them wanting. But she didn't complain, she didn't grouse. She wrote and copyrighted her own. No big deal.

For years afterward, the students in Cupp's early elementary classes in Atlanta - and the adults in her evening classes, where she volunteered - left her presence with a magic tool: a way to pronounce letters, to decipher words, to read.

The good news is she taught for 30 years - then spent two more in the state's Department of Education in charge of curriculum and reading.

The better news is she never lost her passion - for teaching.

The even better news is Cupp never stopped developing new materials or offering workshops.

Now, in January, with the help of her sister - "my secret weapon," she calls her - Cupp Publishers moves to a new home. Now, instead of stopping at their childhood home on the southside, the 16-wheelers - already hauling materials to 180 schools in at least 60 Georgia counties - will load up at the new distribution center on Abercorn Street.

But before any of that happened, Cindy had to retire and move back to Savannah in 1999. Then she had to convince her sister, Ginger Douglass, to join her.

"Not easy," said Cindy, 11 months and two years younger than her sister.

For 31 years and five principals, Ginger, a school counselor, occupied the same office, the same school - Pulaski Elementary - here. But Cindy, 54, already had her primed and hooked to make a change because for the last two of those years, Ginger spent at least six hours a day helping her sister edit and type stories and schedule and bill reading workshops.

So the ground work was there.

"We're totally different," said Cindy. "She thinks and thinks and thinks. I move. She's the detail person, the one whose careful with money. Without her, I'd have a tendency to go off the deep end. If she says 'go,' I know it'll work."

Cindy does a little thinking, too. One day, she and a friend were having lunch at the Gryphon Tea Room when the waiter stopped to say, "Is there anything else I can get for you?"

"Yes," Cindy remembers saying. "An artist I can afford."

Cindy already had her reading philosophy, her characters - Jack and Jilly, Wise Owl, Miss O, Little Tiger, for starters - and her stories.

But she needed an illustrator.

"I'm an artist," said the waiter.

"Well, then, let me see you illustrate Farmer Blue walking down the street with all his animals," Cindy responded.

So he did.

In about three minutes, Elvin Hernandez, a student from Puerto Rico at the Savannah College of Art and Design who's majoring in black and white comic book illustration, took out a pen, found a napkin and responded to the challenge.

When he said "yes" to Cindy's next request - 500 drawings in six weeks - another piece of the publishing puzzle fell into place.

Now she has 60 stories in 11 books that introduce four new words each; a toolbox with "everything you need to teach phonics," letter cards, sight-word rhyming cards and CDs with original alphabet songs.

And she gets to teach. For every school buying the "Jack and Jilly" books, Cindy volunteers to demonstrate her teaching techniques - free - in their classrooms.

She's also following the progress of 2,500 kids in 19 counties who use her website - - which also includes tips, anecdotes and stories.

But that's not all.

On Dec. 28, at their childhood home not far from Bartlett Middle School, (which both attended) the company will present the first of an annual Walter E. Cupp National Teacher's Scholarship prize of $3,000.

Walter Cupp, their father, passed away last March.

"Very few children have a true disability," Cindy said, tears filling her eyes. "Learning to read can be as hard as learning to play an instrument, but it can be done.

"I know. I've seen it happen."

Jane Fishman's column runs Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
She can be reached at or
at 912-652-0313.