Before Dr. Benjamin Carson was a famed neurosurgeon, before his life story was chronicled in books, he was Sonya Carson's little boy.
Yesterday, Sonya Carson's determination to educate her sons against all odds was commemorated at a ceremony for the annual Carson Scholars Fund at the Baltimore Convention Center.
More than 200 students, from grades four through 12, received $1,000 toward their college tuitions. To win, students must have at least a 3.75 grade point average and strong "humanitarian qualities."
The focus of the event might have been the scholarships given to the students, but the award to Carson's mother highlighted the struggles and the sacrifices parents make so their children can succeed.
'You can make it'
Sonya Carson told the crowd of 1,100 that the most important thing is perseverance.
"Keep on. Push hard, because you can make it," said Carson, who declined to reveal her age.
She should know. Originally from Tennessee, she married when she was age 13 and moved to Detroit.
She had two children, Ben and Curtis, before her husband, a preacher, abandoned her for another woman, according to published accounts.
With a third-grade education, she worked several jobs to keep her family afloat. More than anything, she wanted her boys to learn. Turn off the television, she told them. Read two books a week. Write me a report on each book.
What her boys didn't know was that she could not read. She assessed their book reports based on the amount of time she felt they invested in them. (She has learned to read.)
Her boys read and read. Ben Carson became chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital and won worldwide fame when he separated Siamese twins joined at the head in 1987. Curtis became an engineer.
"I did it by the grace of God," Sonya Carson said yesterday of raising her sons alone.
Angela Jones understood Sonya Carson's tale well.
Jones, of West Baltimore, scours libraries and the Internet for information on scholarship opportunities for her daughters, Mia, 12, and Sache, 9.
She takes her children to museums and science exhibits to expose them to different ideas and cultures.
"When my girls say they don't feel well, I say, 'If your legs move, you're going' " to school, said Jones, 36, who is enrolled in college.
Her daughters apparently listened. Yesterday, Sache, who has been on the honor roll since first grade, received one of the Carson scholarships.
Sache, a fourth-grader at Cross Country Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore, wants to be a teacher.
"I like helping people," she said. "It's a good experience to help people learn."
The Sonya Carson award will be given annually to a person who has the willpower to motivate students and nurture them to be future leaders, said Kerwin Speight, an American University student and Carson scholar who presented the award.