Doctor's advice: Learn to lead, rather than follow

Final Pillars speech focuses on peer pressure, independence

Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2000

Don't let your peers run your life.

That's the message Dr. Benjamin Carson brought to the final lecture in the 2000 Pillars of America Freedom Series on Wednesday at Centennial Hall.

In fifth grade in Detroit, Carson allowed himself to be called class ``dummy'' until he realized no one else in the class could identify a mineral sample a visitor brought in. For a few years thereafter, he became a bit smug and superior -- teasing classmates that the ``Mo'' in Motown derived from ``Mozart.''

Then, in high school, he again fell under the influence of peers. He defines peers as People Who Encourage Errors, Rudeness and Stupidity.

Fortunately, as she had the first time around, Mom came to the rescue. ``My mother got me back on the right track. She told me what you wear isn't as important as what's up here,'' he said, tapping his frontal lobes.

Although his mother worked long hours as a domestic, she had dreams for the two sons she was raising alone following a divorce. When Carson was in fifth grade majoring in throwing rocks at cars and getting math grades of zero, his mother decided he and his brother should cut their television watching to a bare minimum and read. Each had to turn in two book reports a week.

``Of course, we didn't know she couldn't read them,'' he noted, getting a big laugh.

From growing up in poverty complete with rats that could move trash cans, Carson has risen to worldwide recognition as a neurosurgeon. He is now a professor of neurosurgery, oncology, plastic surgery and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Medical Institution. He is also the recipient of 20 honorary degrees.

As a child he was inspired by medical missionaries who spoke at his church, and considered medicine ``the most noble calling in the world.'' But, at the same time, his only talent seemed to be a bad temper.

He believes his ``dummy'' self was the result of expectations of his classmates and of society. But his mother constantly quoted a poem about captaining his own ship, steering his own course.

Now Carson has learned to lead rather than follow. In particular, he is leading in the field of separating Siamese twins.

Separating Siamese twins joined at the head is the painstaking separation of entwined blood vessels with paper-thin walls, walls that could bleed at any instant. Yet in 1997 in South Africa, Carson accomplished such an operation 29 hours long using only four pints of blood. The babies ate on their own in three days; crawled normally in two weeks.

``Think Big,'' he told his audience. That includes developing your talents until you become valuable to those around you, he said. Not being afraid of being called a nerd or demonstrating humanitarian qualities. And concentrating on in-depth learning rather than superficial facts.

It's not too late to change, Carson said. He added that Mom eventually learned to read, got her GED, and even got an honorary degree -- making her Dr. Carson, too.

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