Even as a child, Benjamin Carson wanted to be a doctor. Now a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon, Carson believes he owes his success to his mother, a domestic who received only a third-grade education.
The simplest way to say it is this: I believe in my mother. My belief began when I was just a kid. I dreamed of becoming a doctor.
My mother was a domestic. Through her work, she observed that successful people spent a lot more time reading than they did watching television. She announced that my brother and I could only watch two to three pre-selected TV programs during the week. With our free time, we had to read two books each from the Detroit Public Library and submit to her written book reports. She would mark them up with check marks and highlights. Years later we realized her marks were a ruse. My mother was illiterate; she had only received a third-grade education.
Although we had no money, between the covers of those books, I could go anywhere, do anything and be anybody.
When I entered high school I was an A-student, but not for long. I wanted the fancy clothes. I wanted to hang out with the guys. I went from being an A-student to a B-student to a C-student, but I didn’t care. I was getting the high fives and the low fives and the pats on the back. I was cool.
One night my mother came home from working her multiple jobs and I complained about not having enough Italian knit shirts. She said, “Okay, I’ll give you all the money I make this week scrubbing floors and cleaning bathrooms, and you can buy the family food and pay the bills. With everything left over, you can have all the Italian knit shirts you want.”
I was very pleased with that arrangement but once I got through allocating money, there was nothing left. I realized my mother was a financial genius to be able to keep a roof over our heads and any kind of food on the table, much less buy clothes.
I also realized that immediate gratification wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Success required intellectual preparation.
I went back to my studies and became an A-student again, and eventually I fulfilled my dream and I became a doctor.
Over the years my mother’s steadfast faith in God has inspired me, particularly when I had to perform extremely difficult surgical procedures or when I found myself faced with my own medical scare.
A few years ago I discovered I had a very aggressive form of prostate cancer; I was told it might have spread to my spine. My mother was steadfast in her faith in God. She never worried. She said that God was not through with me yet; there was no way that this was going to be a major problem. The abnormality in my spine turned out to be benign; I was able to have surgery and am cured.
My story is really my mother’s story — a woman with little formal education or worldly goods who used her position as a parent to change the lives of many people around the globe. There is no job more important than parenting. This I believe.
Dr. Benjamin Carson is director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children`s Center. His expertise includes separating conjoined twins and doing brain surgery to control seizures. A scholarship fund Carson founded has helped some 1,700 students through college. His mother is retired and lives with Carson and his family.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Emily Botein and Viki Merrick. Photo by Nubar Alexanian.
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