Surgeon sees books as vital to better lives

Example: Dr. Benjamin S. Carson urges parents to do what his mother did -- make sure their children read.

Reading life

January 23, 2000|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For Dr. Benjamin S. Carson, the journey to becoming a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon began nearly four decades ago, when his mother turned off the television and sent him and his elder brother Curtis to the Detroit Public Library for books.

"If she hadn't done that, I don't think there's any possibility I would have made it to where I am today," Carson said during a recent interview at his home in West Friendship, in Howard County.

"My mother is a very wise woman," he said. "She opened her eyes and asked, `What do successful people do?' and the answer was, `They read.' "

Today, the 48-year-old Carson is convinced that his mother's insistence that he broaden his mind through reading enabled him to rise above the poverty of his youth and find success in the field of medicine, just as his brother eventually became an engineer.

Thrust into the limelight by his achievements as a surgeon, Carson -- professor and director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital -- has accepted the responsibility of being an academic role model for young people.

With his wife, Candy, he has established the Carson Scholars Fund, a nonprofit organization that awards scholarships to students who are good role models and outstanding academic achievers.

With co-authors, he has written three books about his life and his philosophies, "Gifted Hands," "Think Big" and "The Big Picture," and a children's book, "Today's Heroes: Ben Carson."

Motivational speeches

When he sees young patients, he asks them how they are doing in school. Many take their report cards for office visits. At least once a month, he gives motivational speeches to hundreds of children, encouraging them to read, work hard in school and seize responsibility for making something of themselves.

He willingly shares his story with parents and children and has made it his mission to get the message out that reading books is the way to overcome obstacles and make a difference in the world.

"You can fill your brain with the tremendous amount of knowledge that comes from reading," said Carson, who hopes to establish Ben Carson reading clubs at schools throughout Maryland. "And knowledge is power."

It's a highly visible role for an intensely private man, and one that state education officials appreciate.

"Dr. Carson's story is so powerful that students are in awe of him," said state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "Because he is a figure of such high visibility and because of his accomplishments, his endorsement of high academic achievement for students is such a powerful message.

"When he speaks to students, he's always talking about reading as fundamental to academic achievement," she said. "And once students have seen and heard him, they're motivated to read."

There was a time, Carson acknowledges, when he had little motivation to read. As a 10-year-old living in Detroit, he dreamed along with other children of finishing school and buying "cool clothes and cool cars."

But his mother, Sonya Carson -- who at the time was unable to read -- took a strong hand in her sons' educations, setting strict limits on television and insisting that they read at least two books a week from the library and give her book reports.

`It will make you wise'

"I felt that there was no limit to what my boys could achieve through reading," said Sonya Carson, who has learned to read and reads the Bible, books about religious history, food and recipes. "Reading gives you insight and other information that you need. It will make you wise."

Dr. Carson recalls that as he began to read more and more, "my horizons broadened far beyond my neighborhood. Reading takes you all over the world, to every corner of the Earth. Reading is the gateway to everything -- and it's free if you go to the library."

As a boy, he enjoyed listening to Bible stories and to tales from a series called "Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories." But his reading adventures got started with a now out-of-print children's chapter book, "Chip the Dam Builder," by Jim Kjelgaard.

"This was the first book I ever read all the way through," said Carson, whose staff at Carson Scholars Fund surprised him recently with a copy of the book as a gift. "It made a beaver into an individual with personality, and you traveled through the day with him as he did the things that beavers do. It really grabbed my interest -- the part of me that really loves animals, nature and science."

The story inspired Carson to read other animal stories from the library. Then he chose nonfiction books about reptiles, mammals and prehistoric creatures.

"That got me really interested in science," he said.

He also read about careers and their impact on society -- and began to envision himself in a lab with a microscope or with a telescope. The noble stories he had listened to in church about missionary doctors had planted a seed in his mind. He decided that he would be a physician -- a "healer in society," he said.

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