[dropcap]H[/dropcap]is nickname in elementary school was “Dummy,” yet Benjamin S. Carson became a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon receiving scores of honors, including the highest award a civilian can win—the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2008.
However, Carson’s future looked anything but bright, living in a single-parent home in dire poverty in inner-city Detroit while failing almost every subject. He could only acknowledge that all his classmates and teachers had him correctly pegged.
“I was perhaps the worst student you’ve ever seen,” he says. “I thought I was really stupid.” Yet, Carson nurtured a dream of becoming a doctor. Whenever he and his brother and mother waited in hospitals for treatment, Carson said he didn’t mind because he was in the place he loved. As he listened to doctors being paged, he said it sounded so wonderful and pictured the day when he would hear his name.
But Carson’s lofty dreams collided harshly with reality in fifth grade, when he brought home a midterm report card bearing mostly failing grades. He said his mother was horrified, fearing he and his older brother Curtis were headed for the same hard life she had. Always working two to three jobs housecleaning, babysitting and cooking for families, she was sometimes gone for days at a time going from one job to the next, working mornings and nights.
Not knowing what to do about her son’s grades, she prayed for wisdom and announced a draconian weekly plan: Limit TV viewing to just three pre-selected programs, and require both Carson and Curtis to each read any two books they wanted from the public library and write book reports.
Though they complained and begged, they still complied—even when home alone—due to the respect they had for their mother. As they read, Carson said it seemed like their friends would make extra noise outside, as they played, to torment them.
Yet, both soldiered on, faithfully giving their mother the book reports. Carson did not know it then, but his mother had never learned to read, reaching only the third grade. She asked for her sons to read their reports aloud, then would pretend to carefully examine them, placing a checkmark.
For the first several weeks, Carson hated it, but his attitude changed when he realized that immersing himself in the books caused him to transcend his circumstances and enliven his mind.
“We had no money,” he says, “but between the covers of those books, I could go anyplace, I could be anybody, I could do anything. And, I began to learn how to use my imagination more because it doesn’t really require a lot of imagination to watch television, but it does to read …. You have to actually exercise your mind in order to get it to be active and to get it to be creative, and reading is a tremendous way to do that.”
Starting with books about animals, then plants, Carson next decided to read about rocks, since he lived near railroad tracks with scores of them around. He would take many home to compare with the illustrations in his library books, becoming a walking compendium of geologic knowledge.
Everything changed for him on the day his science teacher, Mr. Jake, held up a rock for someone to identify. Carson knew it immediately, but waited for someone else to answer. When no one did, Carson raised his hand—the first time he dared answer any question. As his classmates looked on in shock, Carson not only correctly named the rock, but went on to discourse all about it.
Most shocked of all was Carson, because he understood for the first time that he wasn’t a dummy after all. He used to regard the “A” students as inherently more intelligent than him, but now he realized he was actually on equal footing because he had studied the topic.
“Once I developed confidence in myself and began to believe that I was smart, then all of those innate abilities began to come out,” he says. “Everybody has them, everybody who has a normal brain, because there is no such thing as an average human being. If you have a normal brain, you are superior. There’s almost nothing that you can’t do.”
Mr. Jake invited Carson to spend extra time in the lab to further his knowledge of animals, microscopic life and more. Later, he got extra exposure from teachers in the other sciences, and Carson was on his way.
He became the Answer Man—able to correctly answer any question that arose in the sciences. Thus, within less than two years, Carson went from the bottom to the top of his class, and now the ones formerly teasing him about being a dummy were seeking him out for help.
As Carson read widely, he began picturing himself in each field, causing his self-image to also change. While classmates were more concerned with acquiring “cool” things in the short term, he found himself thinking long term. As he read stories about accomplished people, he stopped making excuses for himself and applied himself even more to the books.
“I began to see a connecting thread,” he says. “The person who has the most to do with what happens to you in life is you. You make decisions, and you decide how much energy you put behind those decisions. At that point I didn’t hate poverty anymore, because I knew it was only temporary: I could change that, knowing that I had full power to change it. And that completely changed my outlook.”
Though Carson became an “A” student, he faced one more obstacle—a violent temper that would suddenly erupt and spiral out of control. Curtis once had to grab him from behind when he launched at his mother. Another time at school, Carson hit a classmate while holding his locker’s padlock, opening a three-inch gash on his forehead. Though each instance horrified him, he told himself he could handle his temper. However, a third incident showed him he was wrong.
While at his friend Bob’s house, Carson—age 14—lost his temper when Bob insisted on changing the channel as Carson listened to the radio. Carson suddenly lunged at him with a camping knife he always carried, thrusting it at his abdomen. However, it only went into a large metal belt buckle beneath Bob’s clothing, breaking off the blade and leaving him uninjured. As Bob looked up in horror, Carson sputtered a quick apology and ran off, again horrified.
Locking himself in his bathroom, Carson relived that moment, haunted at all the images and had to acknowledge he indeed had an uncontrollable temper that left him three options: reform school, jail or the grave.
He had surrendered his life to Christ at age 8 and had first wanted to become a missionary doctor. So there in the bathroom, He asked God to take away his temper, reminding Him He promised to do anything when asked in faith. Carson then got a Bible and began reading Proverbs—a practice he still maintains twice daily—mornings and evenings. In the bathroom that day, all the verses about anger seemed directed right at him.
“I had a revelation that the reason I was always angry is because I was always in the center of the equation,” he says. “So, just step out of the center of the equation and then everything won’t be directed at you, and then you won’t be angry, and also, you’ll be able to look at things from other people’s points of view. Once you can do that, the things that make you angry become few and far between.”
When Carson emerged from the bathroom hours later, his temper was gone and would never again pose a problem. That day also became very important to him for one other reason.
“It became clear to me at that point that God was a real entity you could call upon,” he says. “When God fixes something he doesn’t just paint over it. From that day, I realized God is not only my heavenly, but earthly Father. I’ve had multiple experiences in my life, subsequently, that made it very clear to me that there was really a supernatural being called God that you could call upon to take care of problems. It gives me an extra sense of confidence.”
Carson ended up graduating high school with honors, then Yale with a psychology degree, and attained his M.D. from the University of Michigan Medical School. He spent his career with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., directing pediatric neurosurgery at its children’s center, until retiring June 30 at age 61. Among his most notable surgeries was successfully separating Siamese twins in 1987 and 1997. Meanwhile, Curtis also grew academically inclined, according to Carson, becoming a manager for Honeywell in the aircraft landing division.
Today, Carson holds more than 60 honorary doctorates, and is the author of four books. One was the basis for a movie on his life starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., entitled “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story,” that premiered in February 2009 on TNT.
Carson is also a motivational speaker who received national attention for his keynote address at the February National Prayer Breakfast, where he espoused conservative views on health care and more as President Barack Obama looked on nearby.
One of his passions is to help young people get a good start, so he and his wife Candy founded the Carson Scholars Fund in 1994, which awards college scholarships and more to deserving youth in grades 4 to 11 instead of waiting until 11th or 12th grade, which Carson considers too late. The program also establishes reading rooms; thus, youth earn points and prizes for reading.
“It’s just a matter of raising expectations,” says Carson. “We’re helping them to understand how important it is to achieve intellectually …. We’ve got to get them excited and start them at an early level. If you can get them stimulated early on, they become world beaters … and we have to create the right mind-set and the right set of values.”
Despite all Carson’s accomplishments and honors, what means the most to him is impacting youth the way he was once impacted.
“I’m most proud of the 100,000-plus letters that I have from young people, throughout America and around the world, whose lives have been changed by reading one of my books, or seeing me on television, or an interview in a magazine, and recognizing that they have the ability to define their own lives. If that’s the legacy that I leave, I’ll be very happy.”
Chuck Goldberg has a degree in journalism and a Master of Divinity in Christian education. A former newspaper reporter and magazine managing editor, he is now an ordained minister and freelance writer-editor. He and his wife Dolly have three children and live in Layton, Utah.