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Most likely to succeed

Q&A | From 'dumbest kid' to school leader: an interview with Dr. Ben Carson

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

We ran on April 21 excerpts of an interview with Dr. Ben Carson, the brilliant Johns Hopkins director of pediatric neurosurgery. (See also "No useless knowledge," July 25, and "Rock solid," Aug. 14, for more excerpts from the interview.) He is famous for pioneering operations such as separating Siamese twins with conjoined heads, and taking out the diseased half of a child's brain in a way that allows the healthy half to take over, with minimal changes in cognitive function. In our interview, though, he noted that for a long time fellow students and some teachers thought he was stupid. Here are some additional excerpts.

Your mom was 13 when she married your dad, who was 28. What happened when you were eight years old and he ran off? She had only a third-grade education and not a lot of skills, but she noticed that everybody she knew of who went on welfare never came off it. She really didn't want to adopt that lifestyle. She decided to work as long and as hard as necessary to keep us afloat: She would go from one housecleaning job to the next, to the next, leaving at 5 in the morning, getting home around midnight.

When did you see her? Sometimes, we wouldn't even see her for a week because we would already be in bed by the time she came home, and she would leave before we got up. Yet, we knew she was there. She would leave stuff out for us. She would leave food.

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She avoided a victim's mentality? She wouldn't let us be victims either. Never felt sorry for herself or for us either. If you came up with an excuse, she would always say, "Do you have a brain?" If the answer to that was "yes" she would say, "Then you could have thought your way out of that. You didn't have to do what Robert or John or Mary or Susan did." After a while, if people don't accept your excuses, you stop looking for excuses and start looking for solutions. That was perhaps the most important thing she passed on to me and to my brother: Be responsible.

Were you really considered the dumbest kid in the class in the fifth grade? I was the safety net: No one had to worry about getting the lowest mark on a test as long as I was there. My nickname was Dummy. Once we were having an argument about who was the dumbest person in the school. It wasn't a big argument-everyone agreed it was me-but then someone tried to extend that argument to who was the dumbest person in the world. I said, "Wait a minute, there are billions of people in the world." They said, "Yeah, we know that, and you're the dumbest."

Your worst moments were after math quizzes? On that particular day, to make matters worse, we had a math quiz and you had to pass your paper to the person behind you. They would correct it and give it back to you. Teacher would call your name and you had to report your score out loud. Great if you got 100 or 95! Not so great if you got a zero and just had an argument about who's the dumbest person in the world.

What did you do? I started scheming: "When teacher calls my name, I will mumble and maybe she'll think I said something and write it down." The quiz had 30 questions. When she called my name I said, "neimnmm." She said, "Nine! Benjamin you got nine right? Oh, this is wonderful, I knew you could do it if you just applied yourself. Kids, I want you to understand what a significant day this is. Benjamin got nine right. If he can get nine right anybody can."

Did you get away with it? Finally the girl behind me couldn't take it any longer. She stood up and said, "He said none!" The kids were rolling in the aisles. If I could have disappeared into thin air never to be heard from again in the history of the world, I would gladly have done so. But, I couldn't. I had to sit there and act like it didn't bother me-but it did. Not enough to make me study but it did bother me.

What happened? My mother saw all these failing grades. She didn't know what to do, but she prayed and asked God to give her wisdom to know what to do to get her young sons to understand the importance of intellectual development. She then let us watch only two to three TV programs each week. With all that spare time we had to read two books apiece from the Detroit Public Library and submit to her written book reports. She couldn't read them but we didn't know that-she would put little checkmarks and highlights and underlines.


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