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Dummy-to-doctor story inspires educators headed back to school

Published Sep. 29, 2005

Growing up dirt poor and black in Detroit, Ben Carson was a poster child for at-risk youth.

Dubbed a dummy by his classmates, his grades were horrendous and his behavior even worse.

"I was perhaps the worst fifth-grade student you have ever seen," he said. "I was an absolute disaster."

From the ruins rose one of the world's most celebrated neurosurgeons, and one of Bertha Kemp's most celebrated authors.

Kemp, a teacher at Wilson Middle School for 26 years, met Carson at Blake High School on Thursday, where he drew a standing ovation after speaking to school officials and principals at their back-to-school gathering.

"As a teacher, especially as an African-American teacher, you're always looking to find information about people who have had a hard time in school and in life, who grow up to be successful, to motivate your students," said the 60-year-old Kemp.

From life as a "dummy" and the kid with bad attitude, Dr. Benjamin Solomon Carson is director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland. He performs 400 to 500 surgeries a year, most of which involve children and their brains.

In 1997 he made medical history, leading a medical team at South Africa's only black university through a 28-hour operation to separate 11-month-old Zambian twin boys joined at the top of the head, but facing different directions.

Only 13 such operations had ever been attempted; it was the first time both twins had survived.

Carson, 47, went to Yale University and the University of Michigan School of Medicine, but not before life as an angry street fighter in Detroit. Not before his father and mother divorced, after she learned he was a bigamist. And not before watching his mother, who was one of 24 children and married at 13, struggling through a life of poverty without an education.

"My mother was absolutely devastated by my performance in school," Carson said. "She knew what kind of life she had to live and mine was going to be just as bad. So, she prayed for inspiration."

It came in the form of high expectations.

She insisted that her two sons turn off the TV and read two books a week. She demanded that they write reports about the books, never letting on that she could barely read those words herself.

Pretty soon, Carson was reading about anything that interested him, and soon he went from being the dumbest kid in the class to being one of the smartest.

Carson speaks all over the world, about his experiences and his books, Gifted Hands, Think Big and The Big Picture.

Thursday at Blake, he stressed the importance of "so many people along the way, who intervened and made a difference," which is why "educators have such an important role to play."

Hunter's Green Principal Barbara Hancock took that message to heart.

"This is a medical person, whose job is to save lives, telling us how important our jobs are in saving children through education," she said.

Mitch Muley is the principal of Wharton High.

"You know, it's an old cliche, you win it one kid at a time," he said. "You listen to Dr. Carson, and it's just incredible. "

Listening to Carson, School Superintendent Earl Lennard said, he was reminded of his own childhood, growing up poor in Riverview, realizing the importance of an education before it was too late.

"All of us reach that defining moment in our lives," he said. "I finally realized it was up to me if I was going to succeed, or grub palmettos for the rest of my life."

Beth Piecora, president of the Hillsborough County Council of PTA/PTSA, said Carson's story stresses the importance of not leaving one child behind.

"If we had not given him the opportunity to expand his horizons, if we looked at him based only on the neighborhood he lived in or the poverty he came from, he would not be the great doctor he is today," she said.