SAN DIEGO – Do you know the difference between the “worst” student and the “dumbest”?
If so, you’ve got a leg up on the media, Democratic activists and other critics of Ben Carson. This self-righteous bunch recently pounced on the GOP presidential candidate for casual remarks he made to elementary school students in Iowa. Some on the left – which portrays Republicans as ignorant, crazy or evil – considered the comments tantamount to child abuse.
A writer for New York magazine said that the candidate left one student “scarred for life” in an episode that the boy will “recount over and over to his future therapist.”
Therapist? New York-based writers should stick to their Zumba lessons and soy lattes and not write about Iowa. Ever.
As for Carson, while it wouldn’t hurt the retired neurosurgeon and best-selling author to polish his social skills with the pre-adolescent demographic, much of what actually went down at Isaac Newton Christian Academy in Cedar Rapids has been exaggerated and mischaracterized.
Sounding like the motivational speaker he was before he entered politics, Carson was simply trying to create an empathic connection with students by making the case that where you start in life matters less than where you end up.
“As a fifth-grade student, I was a horrible student,” Carson told the crowd. “Anybody here in fifth grade?” Several hands went up. “Who’s the worst student?” he asked.
That’s all he said. But before long, the media was reporting that Carson had asked students to identify their “dumbest” classmate.
Someone tweeted: “@RealBenCarson just called out to 5th grade class: who’s dumbest kid in class?” That was also the title of the online story in New York magazine: “Ben Carson Asks Crowd of 5th-Graders to Point Out Dumbest Kid in Class.”
There’s a big difference. By now, Americans should be smart enough to know that kids who, a generation ago, might have been considered “dumb” might actually have brains that are just wired differently. Maybe these kids are intimidated by school, or are not book-smart, or lack motivation, or can’t focus. Perhaps they have dyslexia, or Attention Deficit Disorder, or some other learning difference that shapes how they process information.
In fact, there are so many unknowns about how people learn that we should no longer use the word “dumb.”
Yet we can still use the word “worst.” The worst kid in class doesn’t listen to the teacher, follow directions, finish assignments, complete homework or refrain from distracting classmates with misbehavior.
But Carson also fumbled. As a general rule, presidential candidates should not invite children to identify those classmates who struggle academically.
Why? Because this could be the first time in recorded history that a group of 10-year-olds are actually listening to an adult and do what they’re told.
Sure enough. In this case, about a half-dozen kids pointed to one student.
That’s the young man that the Manhattan literati is sure will wind up in therapy down the road, thanks to Carson. The boy’s name was Seth, and – according to reporters – the candidate later sought him out and gave him a pep talk.
Putting his hand on Seth’s shoulder, Carson told the boy: “You’re gonna be a neurosurgeon, OK? But all you have to do to turn it around: Read.”
He told the boy that, as a kid, he threw himself into books.
“It didn’t take long before I knew more than all those people who said I was dumb,” he said. “So you do that too, OK?”
The two of them then posed for a picture together, which the Carson campaign quickly tweeted with a message from the candidate: “This young man will go on to do great things in life. Nice to meet you Seth!”
Good save. The exchange got off to a rocky start. But – even though most of the media missed the best part of the story – it turned into a sweet moment.
The New York liberals are right about one thing: Young Seth is likely to remember this encounter. It might just motivate him to do better in school. The rest of us should remember it, too. A politician was caught – not being evasive, narcissistic, antagonistic or cruel. Just being human. That’s been a rare occurrence in this election.
But here, it may have been just what the doctor ordered.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.