Vol. 19, No. 33

June 8, 2000

Commencement 2000

Ben Carson tells of his journey from poverty

Benjamin S. Carson went from an angry street fighter in Detroit to become director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Carson, who attributes his escape from the poverty of his youth to the support and love of his mother, is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including an honorary degree from UD in 1997.

His autobiography, Gifted Hands, chronicles the road from a broken home and poor self-esteem to his life today. His second book, Think Big, elaborates on his philosophy of success in life, and his newest book, The Big Picture, offers an in-depth look at a professional surgeon's life, as well as his perspectives on priorities, race, society, success and living out a life of faith in a complex world.

He and his wife, Candy, created a program known as the Carson Scholars Fund, for students in grades four through 12 in Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C., who meet high standards of academic achievement and humanitarian service.

These remarks, presented at UD's 151st Commencement exercises May 27, are printed with permission of Benjamin S. Carson Sr., M.D.

Congratulations to all the graduates. You know that a Commencement builds dreams. I think back on a time when I was in your seat and also even much further back than that, when I was a youngster sometimes spending hours sitting in the hallways of Detroit's Receiving Hospital or Boston City Hospital.

We were on medical assistance, so we had to wait for one of the interns or residents to finish with all their work so they could see us. But, I used to entertain myself by listening to the PA system: "Dr. Jones, Dr. Jones to the emergency room; Dr. Johnson, Dr. Johnson to the clinic." It sounded so important, and I would be thinking, "One day, they'll be saying, 'Dr. Carson, Dr. Carson to the operating room.'" But, of course, nowadays we have beepers, so I still don't get to hear it. But, it was wonderful having that dream. You know, you have to have something that inspires you to go on.

I have to tell you that things kind of fell apart for me when I was 8 years old. My parents got divorced. My mother was one of 24 children and got married at age 13. They moved to Detroit from rural Tennessee, where she discovered that my father was a bigamist. (I was telling that story at a commencement at the University of Utah. Nobody thought it was that strange. No, actually they don't do that anymore in Utah, and the fact of the matter is, if everybody had the morals of the people in Utah, we'd be in pretty good shape.)

But, at any rate, things kind of fell apart, and we moved to Boston. (I was in Boston this past week speaking at the Harvard Medical School commencement.) But, things weren't so good while we were living there. We lived in one of the tenements. We became very, very familiar with poverty. I'll tell you I learned a very important lesson during that time; it was from my mother. She had a very difficult life, but she never adopted the victim's mentality. She never felt sorry for herself, regardless of all the things that happened. And, that was a good thing. The problem was she never felt sorry for us, either.

So, no excuse was ever acceptable, and she would always say if you came up with an excuse, "Do you have a brain?" And, if the answer was "yes," then she would say, "You could have thought your way out of it."

Well, eventually we moved back to Detroit; poverty was rampant. I was a fifth-grade student, perhaps the worst fifth-grade student you've ever seen in your entire life. My idea of a good day was when I got somebody else kicked out of class. Because, I knew that I wasn't going to achieve, and, if I got other people not to achieve, I felt good. You know, misery loves company. And, my nickname was "Dummy." We were having an argument one time about who was the dumbest kid in the class, and it wasn't that big of an argument. They all agreed it was me. But, the problem was somebody tried to extend the argument to who was the dumbest person in the world. And, I took exception with that, so we had a rather vigorous argument.

Unfortunately, that day, we had a math quiz and I got a zero. Now, that wasn't a problem; I always got a zero. The problem was that, on that day, the teacher said you had to pass your test to the person behind you, let them correct it and give it back to you. The teacher would call your name out loud and you had to report your score--out loud. Now, this was great if you got a 95 or a 100, but not so good if you got a zero, and you knew everybody was going to laugh when you said it. So, I started scheming. I thought, "I know what I'll do. When she calls my name, I'll mumble. Maybe she'll misinterpret what I said, just write it down and move on." So, when she called my name, I said "nuhhhhhhn." And she said "Nine! Oh, Benjamin, this is great! I knew you could do it. See, class, I've been telling you all this time. Look what Benjamin has done!" Finally, the girl behind me couldn't stand it any longer, and she stood up and said, "He said, 'None!'" Well, of course, the kids were rolling in the aisles, and the teacher was so embarrassed and, if I could have disappeared into thin air, I would gladly have done so. But, I couldn't, so I had to just sit there and act like it didn't bother me, but it did. It bothered me a lot, not enough to make me study, but it bothered me a lot.

I was very fortunate because my mother, even though she had had only a third-grade education, believed in me. She was always saying, "Benjamin, you're much too smart to be bringing home grades like this." It didn't help, but she always said it. The thing that really helped was she prayed and she asked God to give her the wisdom to know what to do to get her young sons to understand the importance of intellectual development, because my brother was doing poorly also. You know something? He gave her the wisdom, at least in her opinion. My brother and I didn't think it was all that wise, because it was to turn off the TV. She let us watch only two or three TV programs during the week and, with all that spare time, read two books apiece from the Detroit Public Library and submit to her written book reports, which she couldn't read. But, of course, we didn't know that.

She had pulled a fast one on us, and I wasn't in any way enthusiastic about this. In fact, I thought it was child abuse. But, she didn't dictate what we had to read. And, as I began to read, I discovered one very important thing: Even though we had no money — no money for anything, between the covers of those books, I could go anywhere in the world; I could be anybody; I could do anything. My horizons began to open up. Instead of wanting what everybody else in my class wanted — which was to get out of school, get a job in one of the Detroit factories and buy some cool clothes and a cool car — I began to imagine myself in a laboratory pouring chemicals from a beaker into a flask, watching the steam rise; connecting electrical circuits; looking through a telescope, a microscope. I could never walk past a standing puddle of water. I had to get a specimen and look at it under the microscope. And, I began to know things that other people didn't know, and by the time I was in the seventh grade, I was at the top of the class. The same students who used to call me "Dummy" were coming to me and saying, "Benny, how do you work this problem?" And I'd say, "Sit at my feet, youngster, while I instruct you."

I was perhaps a little obnoxious, but it felt so good to say that to those turkeys. I just kept going and I kind of went overboard, in the sense that reached a point where if I got a 99 on a test, and somebody else got a 100, I was devastated. I couldn't wait until the next test so I could get a higher mark than they did. I remember when I was in the ninth grade, I went up to one of my classmates and said, "Dennis, why do you hate me so much?" and he looked me dead in the eye and he said, "Because you're so obnoxious."

And, I said, "Obnoxious! Moi?" He said, "You always have to have the highest mark on everything." I began to realize that I had become one of those people who I didn't like when I wasn't doing so well. I came to the conclusion that maybe all I had to do was the best that I could do and not worry about anybody else. When I came to that conclusion, a tremendous burden was lifted from my shoulders. I know there are people sitting out there right now who face that same problem.

When you come to that conclusion, it makes your life a whole lot easier.

When I was in the fifth grade, I thought I was stupid, so I conducted myself like a stupid person and achieved like a stupid person. When I was in the seventh grade, I thought I was smart: I conducted myself like a smart person and achieved like a smart person. What does that say about expectations, and about human potential? This is what we must learn to develop.

You know, as a brain surgeon, I am enamored with the brain. It is the most fantastic organ system in the entire universe. It has billions and billions of neurons, with hundreds of billions of circuits between them.

Your brain can process more than 2 million bits of information per second. To give you an example of how sophisticated your brain is, how many of you remember your birthday? Can I just see your hands? OK, now, that's good! Now, what did your brain have to do for you to respond to that question?

First of all, the sound waves had to leave my lips, travel through the air, enter your auditory meatus, travel down to the tympanic membrane, set up a vibratory force, which traveled across the ossicles of your middle ear to the oval and round windows, setting up a vibratory force in the endolymph, which mechanically distorted the microcilia, converting mechanical energy to electrical energy, which traveled across the cochlear nerve to the cochlear nucleus to the pons-to-medullary juncture, from there to the superior olivary nucleus ascending bilaterally up the brain stem to the lateral lemniscus and the anterior colliculus and the medial geniculate nuclei across the thalamic radiations and so on and so forth. You get the point. And that's the simplified version. I didn't want to get into the complexities; we'd be here all day talking about that one thing.

Your brain can do that and multiple other things, much more complex than that and you barely have to think about it. So, with a brain like that, why would anybody ever utter the words, "I can't"? And yet, some years ago, there was a survey done in this and in 22 countries of the world, looking at the ability of students to solve math and science problems. We ranked number 21 out of 22. Last year, the survey was done amongst industrialized nations for just top twelfth graders. We were dead last in advanced physics, next to last in math, scraped the bottom of the barrel in several categories. Can we allow that to persist now that we have moved from the Industrial Age, where all you needed was a strong back and a willingness to work, to the Information Age, where knowledge is power? How long can we remain on top when we have performances like that? See, that's a challenge for you all. See, we are still going to India and Pakistan to recruit software engineers. We cannot allow a situation like that to persist. We have got to change that somehow. It's going to be up to each one of you in your sphere of influence to begin to emphasize those things that are right.

You know, it's not sports and entertainment that are the most valuable things in our society. Regardless of what anybody else says, it's the development of this intellect. That is the thing that distinguishes us from all the other creations that God made. We have to learn how to accept that.

That's the reason that my wife and I created our scholarship program. We go into the schools and see all these trophies--all-state basketball, all-state wrestling, all-state this, all-state that. But, what do the kids who are superstars academically get? A pat on the head and a National Honor Society pin. Other kids look at them as nerds and eggheads. There is a great disparity there. Many principals have told me that when they held honors convocations, the smartest kids would not come up and get their awards because the other kids would ostracize them. We cannot allow that situation to persist in our country.

It is absolute death if we do that.

Go back and look historically at other nations that were at the pinnacle with no competition, like we are now — ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome — no competition, everybody looked up to them, they were going to be on the top forever. What did they do? They became enamored of sports and entertainment, lifestyles of the rich and famous. They lost their moral compass, and they went right down the tubes.

Some people say it can't happen here. It is already happening here. The question is, "Are we going to be willing to stand up for our beliefs?" Are we going to let Hollywood and Washington, D.C., define who we? Or, are we going to use those incredible brains that God gave us and recognize that this is a country of values and principles? That we stand for something and move forward? It's going to be up to your generation to make that decision, to decide where the United States of America ends up in the long run.

You would have thought, having learned all those lessons, that life was going to be wonderful for me. But, when I got to high school, I ran into the worst thing a young person can run into. It's called peers, negative peers. P-E-E-R-S. That stands for People who Encourage Errors, Rudeness and Stupidity.

And, that's exactly what they were doing, telling me what kind of clothes I had to wear. Back in those days, it was the Italian knit shirts and sharkskin pants. You don't know about sharkskin; you're too young, but, turn them this way, they're green; turn them this way, they're blue. Thick and thin socks; alligator shoes. You know, it sounds like a clown suit.

It's so refreshing to me that nowadays young people don't worry about fashion anymore. Or, at least, you wouldn't think so from some of the things you see. At the hospital, I was on the elevator and there was an elderly lady on the elevator, properly dressed, and these two young men got on with these pants. Have you seen these pants? You don't wear them around your waist; you wear them around your thighs. It looks like you fly them. She turned around — she was very concerned — and she said, "Young man, I believe your pants are coming off." And, they said, "They're supposed to look like that." It was all I could do to contain myself that young people could be so deceived. I could tell some stories on the young ladies, too. They walk around with these blue jeans with holes in them, paying more for them than pants with no holes. Think about the mentality: People allow themselves to be led so easily.

There I was, in high school, and I started listening to the stuff, and I went from an A student to a B student to a C student and my grades kept plummeting, but I was cool. Fortunately, my mother got me to understand that it wasn't what you wore on the outside, it's what you had up here that made the difference.

I got back on the right track. The guys didn't like it. They were calling me "nerd" and "poindexter" and "Uncle Tom" and all kinds of stuff. And, you know something? I really didn't care what they had to say, and I always shut them up by saying one thing. I said, "Let's see what I'm doing in 20 years, and let's see what you're doing in 20 years, and we'll see who's right." It was a funny thing; when I went back to my 25th class reunion, the people who were still alive all came up to me, and they were saying, "We are so proud of you and we tell our children about you. And, don't you remember how we used to encourage you?" People's memories kind of slip.

I had an overriding goal when I got back on the right track. I wanted to be a contestant on a program called GE College Bowl. It came on every Sunday at 6 o'clock. They would put two colleges against each other; they asked questions that are a lot harder than on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, science and history, geography, all this stuff. I was just determined to be a contestant, but the problem is they also asked questions about classical music and classical art, and how was I going to learn about that stuff in an inner-city high school in Detroit? So, I made an executive decision. I said, "It's up to you." So, I would get on a bus, and I would go downtown to the Detroit Institute of Arts, day after day, week after week, month after month, roam through those galleries until I knew every picture, who painted them, when they were born, when they died, what period was represented. I always had my portable radio, listening to Bach and Telemann and Mozart. The kids in Detroit thought I was nuts. I mean, think about this — a black kid in Motown listening to Mozart. I tried to convince them that the "Mo" in Motown meant Mozart, but they wouldn't believe me.

I even decided which college to attend based on that program. I only had $10, which was the application fee to one college (that tells you how long ago that was). And, I said I going to apply to the college that wins the grand championship on College Bowl. Well, the grand championship that year happened to be between Harvard and Yale, and Yale completely demolished Harvard, so I didn't want to go to school with a bunch of dummies. So, I decided to go to Yale. (Actually, when I was at Harvard on Thursday, I heard one of the neurosurgeons telling a bunch of students that really the score wasn't that bad.) At any rate, when I went to Yale, that was the year that College Bowl went off the air. I know, it's a sad story.

Years later, when I decided that I wanted to be a neurosurgeon, I said, I'm going to the place that's best known for neurosurgery, and, of course, that was Johns Hopkins. Cushing, Dandy, Walker, all the big names had been there.

Problem was they only took two people a year out of 125 applicants. How was I going to get to be one of them? When I went for my interview, it turned out that the fellow who was in charge of selecting the neurosurgery residents was also in charge of the cultural affairs committee. We started talking about medicine and neurosurgery and, somehow, the conversation switched to classical music. We talked for over an hour about different composers and their styles, different conductors and their styles, the various orchestras and orchestral halls. The man was on cloud nine! There was no way he wasn't taking me into the program. Sometimes, people tell you you don't need to learn that stuff. You know, you are overcrowding your brain. But, you never know what doors that information is going to open for you.

I got a lot of criticism when I was learning that stuff. People were saying to me, "Why are you learning that European art, that European music? That's not culturally relevant to you." Have you ever heard that term, "culturally relevant"? What is culturally relevant to a citizen of the United States of America? Tell me that. All you need to do is go to New York Harbor?or New Jersey Harbor, depending on which side you came from — and go and look at the museum there, at the faces of those people on Ellis Island. Look at those pictures; look in their eyes — the determination, from all corners of the Earth. Many of them with only the things that they could carry with them, but, with such determination!

They worked, not eight hours a day, not 10, not 12 but 16, 18 hours a day, not five days a week, but six or seven days a week. There was no such thing as a minimum wage. They worked, not for themselves, but so that their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters might have an opportunity in this nation. That is the backbone of this nation of ours.

Hundreds of years before that, there were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships. They, too, had a dream. They worked even longer, even harder, for less, but they had a dream that their great-grandsons and great-granddaughters might be free to pursue happiness in this nation. And, of all the nations in the world, this is the only one big enough and great enough to allow all those people from all those backgrounds to pursue their dreams. So, what, tell me, is culturally relevant in a nation like that? We need to get rid of that mentality and recognize who we are.

Things went well for me and I finished college and went to medical school. The first set of comprehensive exams in medical school, though, I didn't do so well. I was sent to see my counselor. He looked at my records and said, "You look like an intelligent young man. I bet there are a lot of things you could do...outside of medicine." He told me medical school was a mistake for me and that I should drop out. I adamantly refused to do so, and he said, "I'll tell you what. Let's put you on a reduced schedule. You take half the first-year courses the first year, half the first-year courses the second year, half the second-year courses the third year. We'll keep dividing it, and maybe you'll graduate before you die." Well, you know, I wasn't interested in that either, and I went back to my room and I said, "Lord, you know I'm not dumb. There's a problem here." I started analyzing the situation. You know, this is a great thing about this brain of ours: We can analyze things. We don't have to just react like animals do. We don't have to be victims of circumstance. We can take information from the past and the present and project it into the future. I said, "What kind of courses have you always done well in and what kind of courses have you done poorly in?" I recognized that I did poorly in courses where I had to listen to a lot of boring lectures, and I did well in courses where I did a lot of reading. There I was, listening to eight hours of boring lectures every day. So, I made the command decision that I would skip those lectures and read, and the rest of medical school was a snap after that. Now, I'm not saying to you not to go to your lectures, OK? That's not what I'm saying. But, what I'm saying is that you have to learn how you learn and fit that into your program for life. Play to your strengths and not to your weaknesses; it makes a large, large difference.

I want to close by telling you what I think success is all about. It's not about zillions of dollars and some dot-com organization.

I'll illustrate it by telling you a story. In 1997, I was asked if I would come to South Africa to head up a team in an attempt to separate Type 2 Vertical Craniopagus twins. These are Siamese twins joined at the top of the head, facing in opposite directions. There'd been 13 attempts in the history of the world to separate twins like that, none of which had resulted in two living or intact individuals. So, I knew it was going to be a great medical challenge. But, also, this operation was being done at the Medical University of South Africa at Medunsa, the only major black teaching hospital in South Africa--always the stepchild throughout apartheid and the postapartheid period to Cape Town and Johannesburg. Big inferiority complex. This was their opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with the big boys, and all that pressure was on me, all that social pressure. I was prepared for the medical pressure, not the social pressure. I said, "Lord, you're going to have to show me something that no one else has seen before, because smarter, more capable people than me have tried and failed." Interestingly enough, as I was looking at the various studies, I noticed that the common draining system between the two twins was a little narrower right in the center than it was on either end. Now, the traditional neurosurgical literature advocated that you would give one twin the major drainage system and separate the other one over the course of three or four operations, with the hope that they would each develop adequate circulation. I felt impressed to divide it right in the middle and that they would adequately reverse their circulation and be able to drain immediately. When I explained that to the team, they said, "You're the boss."

When I went to the operating room, it was two days before New Year's of 1998. There was a big sign over the O.R. that said, "God Bless Joseph and Luka Banda." They were having song service and prayer service, and I felt good and I asked them to bring a stereo system into the operating room to play inspirational music, and 19 hours into the surgery, we were only three-quarters of the way finished. The part that remained was so complex; the blood vessels were engorged; they were adhesed; it was like spaghetti. And, it looked impossible. I thought about the first set of Siamese twins we separated: 60 units of blood. The second set, 80 units. And, I looked at that and said, "There's not enough blood in South Africa." We stopped the operation and went into conference. I said, "Maybe we should just cover over what's been done here, come back in several months and they will have developed enough collateral circulation that we can cut through these vessels and they would still live."

The doctors from Zambia, which is where the twins were from, and from South Africa said, "I know you could do that at Johns Hopkins, but we don't have the ability to keep partially separated twins alive. They'll die."

I really felt the weight of the world on my shoulders as I walked back into that operating room. I didn't have my $350,000 Zeiss operating microscope that I have at Hopkins or my $400,000 3-D wand or my lasers or my ultrasounds or any of that fancy equipment. I just had my loupes and a scalpel and faith in God, and I went in there and said, "Lord, it's up to you."

To make a long story short, when I made the final cut between those blood vessels, on the stereo system came the "Hallelujah Chorus."

Everybody had goose bumps. When we finished after 28 hours, one of those twins opened his eyes, reached up for the tube. The other one did the same thing by the time we got to the intensive care unit. Within two days, they were extubated; within three days, they were eating; within two weeks, they were crawling around, perfectly normal--which is how they remain today.

But, you know something? That's not the success. The success you had to be there to witness — the people were literally dancing in the streets, their level of self-esteem was so high. We could not walk down the hallways. That is what success is. It is taking the talent that God has given you and using that to elevate other people. It's not about accumulating things unto yourself.

And that is what I mean when I say, "THINK BIG."

The "T" is for "Talent," which God gave to everybody. Not just the ability to sing and dance and throw a ball--nothing wrong with those things, don't get me wrong. But, let's put intellectual ability where it belongs so that the United States of America can stay where it belongs.

The "H" is for "Honesty." Lead a clean and honest life. You don't put skeletons in the closet that way, because if you do, they always come back to haunt you, just when you don't want to see them. And, if you always tell the truth, you don't have to try to remember what you said three months ago.

The "I" is for "Insight," which comes from listening to people who've already gone where you're trying to go. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, said, "Wise is the person who can learn from someone else's triumphs and mistakes." He said, "The person who cannot is a fool."

The "N" is for "Nice." Be nice to people, because once they get over their suspicion of why you're being nice, they'll be nice to you. Can we take a pledge? Can we raise ours hands and take a pledge to be nice to everybody for one week? For one week, we're going to be nice to everybody. OK? Now that includes members of your own family too. OK? That means you can't talk about people behind their backs, or in front of their backs. If there's only one spot on the elevator, let somebody else get on. When you get on that elevator, don't act like you've never seen the numbers change from one floor to another; say hello to people. You're in the parking lot, there's only one spot, people are following you to your car to wait for you to get out, so they can get in your parking space. Don't go through the glove department. Just get out of the spot and let them in. People like to revel in their power. Don't do that. For one week. If you do it for one week, you'll see it makes a big difference.

The "K" is for "Knowledge," which is the thing that makes you into a more valuable person. Do I have a big house? Yes. Lots of cars? Yeah, I grew up in Detroit; I like cars. A lot of the things that Robin Leach thinks are important, I do have them. Are they important? Of course not. They mean nothing, and if someone takes them all away, I don't care. You know why? Because I can get them all right back almost immediately with what's in my head. (Or, at least, I could before managed care!) And, that's what Solomon meant when he said, "Gold, silver and rubies are nice, but we treasure far above those things, knowledge, wisdom and understanding." Why? Because with that, you get all the gold and silver and rubies you want, but more important, you come to realize that gold and silver and rubies don't mean anything, that the thing that is important is developing your god-given talents to the point where you become valuable to the people around you, And, that's where fulfillment comes in.

The "B" is for "Books," which is the mechanism for obtaining that knowledge, and it's never too late, as some of the graduates here have shown, as my mother showed. My mother did eventually teach herself how to read, she got her GED, went on to college. In 1994, she got an honorary doctorate, so she's Dr. Carson now, too. So, it's never too late.

And the second "I" is for "In-Depth Learning," learning for the sake of knowledge and understanding, as opposed to superficial learning. Superficial learners cram, cram, cram before a test, sometimes do OK, and three weeks later, know nothing. I'm sure none of you know anybody like that. We've got to get over that because we are not #21 out of 22, we are #1 out of 22. And, it's up to you guys to prove that.

And the last letter, "G," is for "God." Don't be ashamed of God. We live in a country where people say, "You're not supposed to talk about God in public." Somehow that violates the concept of separation of church and state. That's a bunch of crap. Think about this. Let's forget about all this political correctness stuff. That's contrary to who we are. And, let's think about what we believe in. You know, this country, the preamble to our Constitution, our Bill of Rights talks about certain inalienable rights that our Creator, a.k.a. God, endowed us with. The Pledge of Allegiance to this flag says we are "one nation under--God." In courtrooms in the land, on the walls it says, "In God we trust." Every bill in your wallet, every coin in your pocket says, "In God we trust." So, if it's in our Constitution, if it's in our pledge, if it's in our courts and if it's on our money, but we can't talk about it--what is that?

In medicine, we call it "schizophrenia."

And, you know, doesn't that explain a lot about what's going on in our nation today? As we go forth from this place, as proud graduates, please go forth with the knowledge that it's OK to live by godly principles of caring about your neighbor, of loving your fellow man, of developing your God-given talents to the utmost so that you become valuable to the people around you, of having values and principles and standing for something.

And, if you do that, I will guarantee you that we will indeed have "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Thank you and congratulations.