Dr. Benjamin Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, has been called a “Miracle Worker” and a “Surgical Superstar” for his pioneering surgeries on seriously ill children. Two years ago, he won worldwide acclaim as part of a surgical team that successfully separated Siamese twins who had been joined at the head.
Carson’s success might surprise some of his elementary school teachers who knew him as an inner-city kid in Detroit more than 25 year ago. “I had no competition for last place in class,” Carson recalls. “Nobody thought much of me.”
Nobody, that is, except his 5th graders checking science teacher, William Jaeck. “He was different,” says Carson, who is 37. “It was really stimulating to think that there was somebody who didn’t think I was a dummy.”
Jaeck’s science class at Higgins Elementary School in Detroit offered a rich environment for the budding scientist. The teacher emphasized the study of nature and animals. His class visited a nearby pond to watch the ducks and fish, and a nearby cemetery to study the trees. They attended flower shows and other events downtown. The “science room,” where classes were held, had a collection of animals that included an opossum, a weasel, mice, guinea pigs, birds, and an abandoned red squirrel that the children raised.
The surgeon remembers Jaeck’s ease with animals--even with a tarantula, which appeared unexpectedly one day in a bunch of bananas. “He was so calm with the thing,” recalls Carson. “It made me understand that we can interact with nature.” Jaeck says his own love of nature and animals came through in the classroom. “If the class is fun, interesting, and exciting and the teacher is interested in the subject and can communicate that excitement, the kids get hooked,” he says.
By the time he was eight years old, Carson knew that he wanted to become a doctor, but Jaeck’s class helped put him on the path. Jaeck gave Carson special projects, encouraged him to come by the science room, and showed interest in his rock collection. “He recognized an ability in me and encouraged it,” the former student says. “That was the initial spark. From that point on, I became a good student, and it was science dragging all the other subjects along.”
Later, in high school, he was influenced by peers who were more interested in drugs, alcohol, and other self-destructive activities than in studying. His grades began to drop. He says his belief in God--which continues to be a dominant part of his life today-- and the encouragement of his mother put him back on course.
Jaeck still teaches at Higgins Elementary School. But the science room that so enthralled young Carson no longer exists. In response to control problems associated with students changing classrooms, they now stay in one classroom all day with one teacher. Although none of Jaeck’s students were bitten by a classroom animal, fear of lawsuits has left him with only goldfish in the class, which he constantly worries some kid might swallow and choke on. Liability and budget concerns also have restricted trips. It is not like the days when Carson was there, Jaeck says, when it seemed the only restriction on a teacher was a limited imagination.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Benjamin Carson, Pediatric Neurosurgeon