From Detroit News archives: Carson struggled growing up

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
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This report first ran on March 24, 2000 in The Detroit News’ features section. Carson was slated to speak at the Michigan Reading Association convention at Cobo Center.

How do you pinpoint the moment when a boy growing up in a grim part of Detroit turned his life around?

Some might say it was when young Ben Carson impulsively tried to stab one of his best friends in a fit of anger, an event that shook him to his core. (Happily, the knife glanced off a belt buckle.)

But Dr. Ben Carson, who’s won global fame for separating Siamese twins joined at the brain, argues the critical turning point came when he was in the fifth grade, and his marks began sliding off the scale at Higgins Elementary.

Carson 'different' than during his Detroit teen years

As with so many against-the-odds success stories, the force for change turned out to be the usual suspect: His mother. “I’ve decided you boys are watching too much television,” Carson recalls her telling him and his older brother Curtis as she snapped off the TV. From then on, she announced, the two would only watch three pre-approved programs a week.

Carson survived the loss of TV rights to eventually become chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, and one of the most prominent surgeons in the United States. He comes home this Sunday to speak at the Michigan Reading Association convention at Cobo Center, all part of the Southwestern High School graduate’s mission to spread the gospel that every child can reach higher than he or she thinks.

Carson, the author of a new book, “The Big Picture: Getting Perspective on What’s Really Important in Life” (Zondervan), does more than just spout nice words. He’s put his faith into practice by founding the Carson Scholars Fund, which awards college fellowships to students demonstrating academic excellence and a commitment to humanitarian causes.

In his own case, the upward trajectory he embarked upon in fifth grade took him to Yale University and the University of Michigan Medical School. He won his present position when he was just 33.

As for momma Sonya Carson’s seismic decision, from a little kid’s point of view, even worse was coming.

Instead of watching the boob tube, Sonya — a single mother who never got beyond the third grade — told her flabbergasted boys, “You’re going to read at least two books every week, and give me a report on what you’ve read.”

It doesn’t take a lot of empathy to appreciate how those words might cause a child’s world to collapse about him. Hardly any TV! And book reports! A friend in their Delray neighborhood in southwest Detroit warned Sonya her boys would end up hating her. “They can hate me,” Sonya said, “but they’re still going to get a good education.”

A father of three teen-age boys today, Carson argues passionately that reading is even more important than ever, when children are bombarded by the rapid-fire stimulation of electronic gadgets.

“We take little kids and put them in front of TV or Sega at such an early age,” he says by phone from the children’s neurosurgery clinic at Johns Hopkins, “and their minds are racing all the time. Then you put them in school, where things aren’t zooming every minute; no wonder they can’t learn. If you read with them, it slows their mind down, they learn to integrate things and use their imagination.”

It worked for Carson, who decided early that he wanted to be a doctor. From that day in 1961, he started evolving from class dummy to the guy who got all A’s. Indeed, when he won an award at Detroit’s Wilson Junior High for being the highest-achieving eighth grader, the teacher presenting it at an assembly bawled out the mostly white student body for letting him beat them.

This is not to say, of course, that there weren’t other crises along the way.

In ninth grade, his marks slipped again as Carson shirked studies in favor of becoming one of the “in” crowd. And then there was the unfortunate knife incident in high school, which sparked terrified introspection in him, and ended up reaffirming his religious beliefs.

Of his narrow escape, Carson simply says: “That was the Lord. He had other things for me to do.”

Indeed, religion undergirds his whole life. His mother says the thing she’s proudest of is “that Bennie still honors God, and submits his claim to Him.” It comes as some surprise that the mother who loathed television, when first reached by a reporter at the Baltimore home she shares with Carson and his family, says she can’t talk because she’s watching an unfolding news event on — you guessed it — TV.

A gregarious, funny woman, Sonya Carson nonetheless speaks at some length. Of her general contempt for television, the woman who married when she was 13 (he turned out to be a bigamist, and abandoned Sonya and the boys) says: “I didn’t have any intelligence then, and don’t have any now. But just look at TV — what do you think?”

As for those book reports, the delicious irony is that at the time, Sonya couldn’t read. (She’s since learned.) She’d pretend to examine them in detail, but really just marked Bennie and Curtis on the amount of time and effort she felt they’d put in. (Ben isn’t her only success story; Curtis now manages the aircraft-landing division for Allied Signals in Indiana.)

“I got an A in psychology,” she says, and readily admits with a pleased cackle that she was a darn crafty mother.

“I just figured if I could get them stuck on reading,” she says, “and get them motivated that they’d love it.”

Carson’s promise was visible to teachers early on. Frank McCotter, a Southwestern High School biology teacher who hired both Curtis boys to help run the science lab after school, recalls Ben as a “special, mild-spoken” kid who never caused any trouble.

“He struck me, if I can recall,” says the retired teacher in Southfield, “as having a really good capability for something. He had the perseverance to go where he was going.”

But what most impresses McCotter is Carson’s devotion to helping kids: “He gets involved with young people, and stresses that you can be better than you are.”

At Higgins Elementary, Principal Dorothy Riley says the school has posters of Carson they always put up for Black History Month in February. “I just replaced his picture in a glass showcase with that of the mayor (note: Dennis Archer),” she says.

“Our kids need Dr. Carson’s inspiration,” Riley says. “My poverty rate here is 85 percent. Our kids need to realize that they can sit in this crazy science class and come out a doctor.”

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