School—Moving Up

School—Moving Up

From Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul

School—Moving Up

Teach me to walk and I shall run
Teach me to look and I shall see
Teach me to hear and I shall listen
Teach me to sing and I shall rejoice
For your instructions are imprinted in my mind
And your shared experiences I shall keep
What I have learned, I shall treasure
And by learning to fly
I shall soar!

Donna L. Clovis

“You look tired,” I said one evening when Mother trudged into our narrow apartment. It was already dark, and she had put in a long day working two jobs.

“Guess I am,” she said, as she collapsed into the overstuffed chair and kicked off her shoes. With a smile she asked, “What did you learn in school today?”

No matter how tired she was, if we were still up when she got home, Mother asked about school. I got the idea pretty early in life that school was important to her.

She was satisfied with my schoolwork in Boston. I got good grades at the small, private church school Curtis and I attended. Mother thought that place would give us a better education than the public schools.

But when we moved back to Detroit in 1961, I found out that we had been mistaken. The fifth-graders at Higgins Elementary School knew so much more than I that they left me in the dust in every subject. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that I was the dumbest kid in the whole class. I felt stupid from the top of my head to the bottom of my sneakers.

I thought I was too stupid to even read the letters in an eye test that we took halfway through the year. The boy in front of me rattled off every single letter on the examination chart. I squinted, tried to focus and just barely made out the first line.

But there the problem was not with my brain; it was my eyes. I had no idea that my eyesight was so bad. The school provided me with free glasses, and when I wore them to school, I was amazed. I could actually see the writing on the chalkboard from the back of the classroom! Getting glasses started me on my climb upward from the bottom of the class.

When my next report card came out, I was thrilled to see that I had gained a D in math. “Benjamin, on the whole you’re doing so much better,” Mrs. Williamson said to me. I’m improving, I thought. There’s hope for me. I’m not the dumbest kid in the school.

Despite my excitement and sense of hope, though, my mother was not happy. “Oh, it’s an improvement all right,” she said. “And I’m proud of you for getting a better grade. But you can’t settle for just barely passing. You’re too smart to do that. You can make the top math grade in the class.”

“But Mother, I didn’t fail,” I moaned. “I’m doing the best I can.”

“But you can still do better, and I’m going to help you.” Her eyes sparkled. I should have known from that look that she had already started hatching a plan.

Mother was a goalsetter by nature. That was why we had moved back to Detroit in the first place. Mother had her heart set on getting back into our old house, which she was still renting out. For the time being, we lived in a top-floor apartment in a smoggy industrial area while she worked two and three jobs at a time. But as the weeks and months passed, she said, “Boys, just wait. We’re going back to our house on Deacon Street. We may not be able to afford living in it now, but we’ll make it.”

Mother set the same kind of high goals for Curtis and me, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. I remember when Curtis came home with a note from his junior high counselor. Curtis had to read some of the words to her, but she understood exactly what the counselor had done. He had placed Curtis in the less challenging classes for those kids who would not be going to college.

Curtis was one of the few black kids in the school. Mother had no doubt that the counselor thought blacks were not capable of doing college work.

“They’re not going to treat my boy that way,” she declared, staring at the paper Curtis had given her.

“What are you going to do?” I asked in surprise. I never imagined that anyone could argue with a decision made by school authorities.

“I’m going right over there in the morning and get this straightened out,” she said. The tone of her voice showed she meant business. That evening, Mother told us what had happened. “I said to that counselor, ‘My son Curtis is going to college. I don’t want him in any vocational courses.’ ” Then she put her hand on my brother’s head. “Curtis, you are now in college prep courses.”

Mother refused to lower her sights for her boys. At the same time, she would not settle for anything less than the best we could give. She certainly was not going to let me be content with a D. “I’ve got two smart boys,” she insisted. “Two mighty smart boys. Now, since you’ve started getting better in math, Bennie, you’re going to go on. And here’s how you’ll do it. First thing you’re going to do is memorize your times tables.”

“My times tables?” I cried. “Do you know how many there are? Why, that could take a year!”

She stood up a little taller. “I only went through third grade, and I know them all the way through my twelves.”

“But Mother, I can’t. . . .”

“You can do it, Bennie. You just have to set your mind to it. You work on them. Tomorrow when I get home from work, we’ll review them.”

I argued a little more, but I should have known better.

“Besides”—here came her final shot—“you’re not to go outside and play after school until you’ve learned those tables.”

I was almost in tears. “Look at all these things!” I cried, pointing to the columns in my math book. “How can anyone learn all of them?” But talking to Mother was like talking to a stone.

I learned the times tables. I just kept repeating them until they fixed themselves in my brain. Mother kept prodding me and went over them with me at night. Within days after learning my times tables, math became so much easier. I’ll never forget how I practically shouted my score to Mrs. Williamson after another math quiz. “Twenty-four! I got twenty-four right!” School became much more enjoyable. Nobody laughed or called me dummy anymore.

I thought I was on top of the world, but Mother was far from satisfied. She had proved to me that I could succeed in one thing. The next part of her plan was to keep setting higher goals. I can’t say I cared much for this plan.

“I’ve decided you boys are watching too much television,” she said one evening, snapping off the set in the middle of a program.

“We don’t watch that much,” I protested. I tried to argue that some of the programs were educational and that the smartest kids in the class watched television.

As if she did not hear a word, she said, “From now on, you boys can watch no more than three programs a week.” She had also decided what we were going to do with all those hours we had spent on television. “You boys are going to go to the library and check out books. You’re going to read at least two books every week. At the end of each week, you’ll give me a report on what you’ve read.”

I couldn’t believe it. Two books? I had never read a book in my life except those they made us read at school. But a day or two later, Curtis and I dragged our feet the seven blocks from home to the public library. We obeyed Mother because we loved her and because we could tell when she meant business. But that did not stop us from grumbling the whole way.

Several of Mother’s friends criticized her strictness. I heard one woman ask, “What are you doing to those boys, making them study all the time? They’re going to hate you.”

“They can hate me,” she answered, “but they’re going to get a good education just the same.”

Of course, I never hated her. I did not like the constant pressure, but she made me realize the hard work was for my own good. Almost every day, she would say, “Bennie, you can do anything you set yourself to do.”

Since I have always loved animals, nature and science, I chose library books on those subjects. My fifth-grade science teacher, Mr. Jaeck, discovered my interest and gave me special projects to do, such as identifying fish or rocks. By the end of the year, I could pick up just about any rock along the railroad tracks and tell what it was. After reading fish and water-life books, I started checking streams for insects. Mr. Jaeck let me look at water samples under his microscope.

Slowly, I began looking forward to my trips to the library. The staff there got to know Curtis and me. They began offering suggestions on what we might like to read. Soon my interests widened to include books on adventure and scientific discoveries.

As I continued reading, my vocabulary and spelling improved. Up until the last few weeks of fifth grade, our weekly spelling bees were one of the worst parts of school for me. I usually dropped out on the first word. Mrs. Williamson gave us one final spelling bee that covered every word we were supposed to have learned that year. As everyone expected, Bobby Farmer won the spelling bee. He was clearly the smartest boy in the fifth grade. But to my surprise, the final word he spelled correctly to win the contest was agriculture.

I can spell that word, I thought with excitement. I had learned it just the day before from my library book. As Bobby sat down, a thrill swept through me. I’ll bet I can spell any other word in the world. I’ll bet I could learn to spell better than Bobby.

Learning to spell better than Bobby Farmer challenged me. I kept reading all through the summer. By the time I began sixth grade, I had learned to spell a lot of words. In the sixth grade, Bobby was still the smartest boy in the class, but I was gaining ground on him. I kept improving until, by the time I entered seventh grade at Wilson Junior High, I was at the top of the class.

The very kids who once teased me about being dumb started coming up to me and asking, “Bennie, how do you solve this problem?” I beamed when I gave them the answer. It was fun to get good grades, to earn people’s respect. But by then, making it to the top of the class was not good enough for me. Mother’s influence had started to sink in. I did not work hard just to be better than the other kids. I did it because I wanted to be the very best I could be—for me.

Ben Carson, M.D.

[EDITORS’ NOTE: Ben Carson, M.D., is a graduate of Yale University and
the University of Michigan Medical School. He is currently the Director of
Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
In 1987, Dr. Carson gained worldwide recognition for his part in the first successful separation of Siamese twins joined at the back of the head, which took five months of planning and twenty-two hours of surgery

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