Teaching By Example

Dr. Ben Carson gives hope -- and scholarship money -- to the kind of bookish kid that he once was.

April 23, 2005|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

A group of students from an inner-city Chicago neighborhood listened recently as renowned neurosurgeon Ben Carson talked about nerds in the 'hood.

He spoke about having lived as many of the students themselves live - the product of an impoverished, single-parent home, battling low self-esteem, poor grades and a white-hot temper.

But when he got his act together and his grades improved, Carson found himself the brunt of derision and ridicule from fellow students who thought rebelling against book learning was cool.

They told him he was trying to be something he wasn't.

They told him he was behaving like an Uncle Tom.

"I told them, `Watch where you end up, and watch where I end up,'" said Carson.

The more he spoke about his background, the more Carson won the attention of the youngsters, many of whom entered the room with looks of Grade-A lack of interest.

"Now," Carson said as he brought his speech to a close, "who wants to be cool?"

He looked around the room and saw no hands raised.

"Who wants to be a nerd?"

Hands sprung up as if they'd come out of jack-in-the-boxes.

A smile lit up the face of the 53-year- old Carson, as he relived the moment.

The director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital spoke in his office this week, shortly before leaving for New York for events leading up to his receiving the William E. Simon Prize in Philanthropic Leadership yesterday.

It is yet another award for Carson, whose life story, while familiar from his own books and the media attention he attracts, remains compelling to audiences as diverse as those kids in Chicago and the Simon Foundation, a wealthy fund created by the late treasury secretary.

Past recipients include former San Antonio Spurs star David Robinson and Wal-Mart heir John Walton.

The foundation, which awards grants to charities that promote self-reliance, gave Carson $250,000 for the program of his choice.

He didn't have to think twice about where to spend the money: It will go toward his Carson Scholars Fund, which holds its ninth annual banquet tomorrow to celebrate the achievements of its recipients.

The fund awards $1,000 scholarships to students in grades 4-12 who have at least a 3.75 grade point average and demonstrate humanitarian qualities. The money is invested for later use toward college.

"Dr. Carson is an amazing American success story and his philanthropy provides a wonderful example for others to follow," said Dr. Jim Piereson, board member of the William E. Simon Foundation.

The award will likely move Carson closer to his goal of fostering a legion of bright, scholarly, creative nerds in every school in America.

As a neurosurgeon, Carson is most famous for his skill in separating Siamese twins and other contributions to medical technology.

Yet Carson, who was treated for prostate cancer in 2002, said he often is tempted to immerse himself completely in uplifting young people, building confidence at a time when many struggle with peer pressure and anxiety.

"The Carson Scholars Fund is a time for children to get recognized; we have banquets and ceremonies for high school athletes, why not recognize academic achievers," said Carson, whose fund has given more than 400 scholarships since its inception in 1996.

"We're saying, `You're superstars. Get used to it. Get excited about academics.' We want them to be role models for other students and change the concept from someone looking down at them for being a nerd or a geek to being admired."

Carson has been an inspiration to young people of all walks of life, and it's easy to see why.

His office, with framed college degrees, awards and honors on its walls, declares: "Someone very successful works here."

His track record - performing 300 surgeries on children each year at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, pioneering and refining techniques for radial brain surgery to stop intractable seizures, authoring three books - underscores the point.

His life is a Toni Morrison script for a Ron Howard film: It stars his mother, Sonya, a woman as fierce and determined as the days are long, who endures abject poverty with her two sons, Ben and Curtis, after divorcing their father, Robert.

She stresses the importance of education as a means of rising above their poverty. She demands that her sons read at least two books a week and submit to her book reports. All the while she never lets on that she has only a third-grade education and can neither read nor write.

But, after her sons graduate from high school, she returns to school, learns to read and earns a GED.

Carson draws strength from his mother's resolve and as a child dreams of becoming a doctor. No longer struggling in school he graduates with honors from a Detroit high school and, after college, he earns his medical degree then becomes, at age 33, the youngest director of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins.

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