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Reading changed my life - Carson

Extract from Ben Carson's Think Big

Two things happened in the second half of fifth grade that convinced me of the importance of reading books. First, our teacher, Mrs. Williamson, had a Spelling Bee every Friday afternoon. We would go through all the words we had so far that year. Sometime she also called out words that we were supposed to have learned in fourth grade. Without fail I always went down on the first word.

One Friday, though, Bobby Farmer, the smartest kid in our class, had to spell “agriculture” as his final word. As soon as the teacher pronounced his word, I thought, I could spell that word. Just the day before, I had learned it from reading one of my library books. I spelled it under my breath, and it was just the way Bobby spelled it.

“If I can spell “Agriculture,” I’ll bet I can spell any other word in the world. I’ll bet I can learn to spell better than Bobby Farmer.” I thought. Just that single word “Agriculture” was enough to give me hope.

The following week, a second thing happened that forever changed my life. When Mr. Jack, the science teacher, was teaching us about volcanoes, he held up an object that looked like a piece of black, glass like rock. “Does anybody know what this is? What does it have to do with volcanoes?”

Immediately, because of my reading, I recognized the stone. I waited but none of my classmates raised their hands. I thought, “this is strange, not even the smart kids are raising their hands.” I raised my hand.

“Yes, Benjamin,” he said.

I heard snickers around me. The other kids probably thought it was a joke, or that I was going to say something stupid.

“Obsidian,” I said.

“That’s right!” He tried not to look startled, but it was obvious he hadn’t expected me to give a correct answer.

“That’s obsidian,” I said, “and it’s formed by the super cooling of lava when it hits the water.” Once I had their attention and realised I knew information no other student had learned, I begged to tell them everything I knew about the subject of obsidian, lava, lava flow, super cooling, and compacting of the elements.

When I finally paused, a voice behind me said, “Is that Bennie Carson?”

“You’re absolutely correct,” Mr. Jack said and he smiled at me. If he had announced that I’d won a million-dollar lottery, I couldn’t have been more pleased and excited.

“Benjamin, that’s absolutely, absolutely right,” he repeated with enthusiasm in his voice. He turned to the others and said, “That is wonderful! Class, this is a tremendous peace of information Benjamin has just given us. I’m very proud to hear him say this.”

For a few moments, I tasted the thrill of achievement. I recall thinking, “Wow, look at them. They are all looking at me with admiration. Me, the dummy! The one everybody thinks is stupid. They’re looking at me to see if this is really me speaking.”

Maybe, though, it was I who was the most astonished in class. Although I had been reading two books a week because Mother told me too, I had not realized how much knowledge I was accumulating. True, I had learned to enjoy reading, but until then I hadn’t realized how it connected with my schoolwork. That day-for the first time-I realized that mother had been right. Reading is the way out of ignorance, and the road to achievement. I did not have to be the class dummy anymore.

For the next few days, I felt like a hero at school. The jokes about me stopped. The kids started to listen to me. I’m starting to have fun with this stuff.

As my grades improved in every subject, I asked myself, “Ben, is there any reason you can’t be the smartest kid in the class? If you can learn about obsidian, you can learn about social studies and geography and math and science and everything.”

That single moment of triumph pushed me to want to read more. From then on, it was as though I could not read enough books. Whenever anyone looked for me after school, they could usually find me in my bedroom-curled up, reading a library book-for a long time, the only thing I wanted to do. I had stopped caring about the TV programs I was missing; I no longer cared about playing Tip the Top or baseball any more. I just wanted to read.

In a year and a half-by middle of sixth grade-I had moved to the top of the class.

Benjamin Carson “Ben Carson” Sr. is an American neurosurgeon and the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital as well as a professor of Neurosurgery, Oncology, Plastic Surgery and Pediatrics. Among other surgical innovations, Carson did pioneering work on the successful separation of conjoined twins joined at the head. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, by President George W. Bush in 2008. He serves on the boards of the Kellogg Company, Costco Wholesale Corp., and the Academy of Achievement, among others, and is an Emeritus Fellow of the Yale Corporation.

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