#910 Saved by books…and high expectations

Dr. Ben Carson

Dr. Ben Carson; photo clip from film by Imanuel Goncalves

Before he retired from a distinguished career in neurosurgery, Dr. Ben Carson pioneered the incredibly difficult surgical separation of craniopagus (joined at the head) twins. His success with other challenging brain surgeries moved him to the top of his field. He credits his success to his mother, a woman with a third-grade education who refused to allow her 10-year-old son to live up to his school nickname, “Dummy”.

In a 1999 interview with David Gergen for PBS News Hour, Carson said his mother tackled the issue by turning off the TV and allowing her children to watch only one or two shows a week. She insisted they read two books a week from the Detroit Public Library and write reports on them. They had no idea she could not read, but Carson said:

So she had pulled a fast one us, but after a while, something happened. I began to actually enjoy reading the books.

Because we were desperately poor, never had enough money to do anything, but between the covers of those pages, I could go anywhere in the world, be anybody, do anything.

You know, my imagination began to run wild. I began reading about research chemists, and I could see myself in a laboratory, pouring things from test tubes, the beakers and seeing the foam rising.

And I became excited and began to visualize myself in intellectual capacities, and, you know, within the space of a year and a half, I went from the bottom of the class to the top of the class.

And one of the interesting things is, when I thought I was stupid, I conducted myself like a stupid person, and therefore I achieved like a stupid person; and when I was smart– or I was smart all along, obviously– but when I thought I was smart, I began to conduct myself accordingly and to begin to achieve accordingly.

Expectations have power. Before Carson could envision a bright future for himself, he needed to turn off the chatter around him. Teachers and classmates saw him as hopelessly dumb. He lived down to their expectations until his mother set him on a new path. By the time he graduated from high school, he had attracted a scholarship from Yale. By the age of 33 he was head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Now Carson and his wife are paying his mother’s belief forward, through the Carson Scholars Fund. They launched it in 1994 when a study ranked American students #21 out of 22 countries. In 2000 they started another initiative, Ben Carson Reading Rooms. The reading rooms are in 85 schools in 12 states and are places where, “The cozy environment encourages students and their families to come together to recognize the importance of reading.”

Immanuel Goncalves posted an excerpt from his film, “Four Chambers”, on YouTube. It is a brief and compelling introduction to Dr. Ben Carson, who learned from his childhood in a poor, violent neighbourhood that:

There’s no such thing as useless knowledge because you never know what doors it’s going to open for you. The more you know, the more options you have.

From “dummy” to brilliant neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben Carson proved the power of the mind, the importance of books, and the role of high expectations. He gives me hope.

You can follow Dr. Ben Carson on Facebook and Twitter.

Books by Dr. Ben Carson

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About the author

Cathryn Wellner

Writer, storyteller, foodie, enviro, animal lover, photo enthusiast, traveler - opinionated but open. I wake up eager to start the day.

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2 comments
Denise Brownlie - January 12, 2014

“The Ben Carson Reading Rooms”: what an inspirational story. Ben Carson; Pope Francis — and so many life-changing “ordinary people” you have spot-lighted in this blog, Cathryn. There truly is reason to hope.

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    Cathryn Wellner - January 14, 2014

    As long as there are people like you in my world, I will always have reason to hope, Denise.

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