Updated with Carson response
Somehow, the word “gaffe” doesn’t quite describe Ben Carson’s latest foot-in-mouth moment. His stumble on the stump in Iowa on Thursday was awkward, embarrassing, possibly painful — anything but funny. And it involved a school kid who — how to put this pleasantly? — perhaps in the view of his fifth-grade classmates does not shine as brightly as they do, and was called out for his shortcomings in front of 500 people at a campaign rally.
By a man who wants to be president. Later, asked in an interview with WABC’s “Election Central with Rita Cosby” whether he would do it again, he said “absolutely,” saying it helped students understand their potential and accusing the “left wing and media” of making “much to do about nothing.”
Here’s how it went down: Carson has told a story countless times about how he was a “horrible student” who was called “dummy” as a kid. He’s told it in his books and it’s been retold in books about him, including in “Gifted Hands, Kids Edition” — in a chapter called “The Dumbest Kid in Fifth Grade.” Though the veracity of some of Carson’s moral fables has been questioned, he contends his mother took him aside and told him to buckle down or he’d be sweeping floors for the rest of his life. He did, of course, and the rest is history for a retired pediatric neurosurgeon with 38 honorary degrees to prove his worth. It’s inspiring — or, at least, supposed to be inspiring for those kept out of the operating room by lack of ability or opportunity.
But Carson flopped yesterday when, in a presumably well-intentioned effort to relate to a group of schoolchildren in Cedar Rapids, he told the tale once more — then, unfortunately, began ad libbing, as the Des Moines Register reported.
“Anybody here in fifth grade?” Carson said. “Who’s the worst student?”
This was not a deleted scene from a dream sequence in a John Hughes film. This was real. The question briefly hung in the air — a humiliation bomb waiting to be told its target.
Then, the finger-pointing began. One student from Isaac Newton Christian Academy — motto: “Developing Christlike character and academic excellence” — was singled out by his peers, a dozen of whom pointed directly to their choice, that one boy, for “worst student.”
Carson ran with it.
“Well, let me tell you, if you had asked that question in my classroom, there would have been no doubt,” he said.
After the rally, Carson met with the student — a 10-year-old wearing a gray polo and a weary expression. Common decency mandates that his name go unmentioned here.
“So you know what we want from you, right?” Carson told the boy. “You’re going to be a neurosurgeon, okay? All right? But all you have to do to turn it around is read. I just started reading and I got to the point where it was my favorite thing in life. And it didn’t take long before I knew more than all those people who said I was dumb. Okay? So you do that, too. Okay?”
A photographer was ready to document the moment.
“Let’s get a picture of you guys,” he said.
For the record, the child did not seem damaged. At least, not yet.
“I was laughing,” he said of his response to being singled out.
His mother ran with it too — though she expressed a bit of regret.
“As a mother, it kind of saddens me that he would be pointed out like that,” his mother told the Register. “Knowing [redacted], I think he’d take it in stride … he’s very well-liked by all the students.” She added: “Personally I know he’s not the worst.”
The only thing worse that what happened in Cedar Rapids, perhaps, is what Carson expected to happen. Asked by the Register what response the question “Who’s the worst student?” was supposed to elicit, Carson said: “I figured people would be pointing around to all different people who they didn’t like.”
The candidate was promptly shredded on social media. After much of 2015 was spent jousting before the start of primary season next month and nearly a year to go until Election Day, one Twitter commenter observed: “I don’t even know what to say.”
— Bob (@2011teacher) January 8, 2016
— Joseph Gilbert (@Jdgbert) January 8, 2016
The young man, however, did receive a consolation prize of sorts from the Carson campaign for his ordeal: a copy of “You Have a Brain,” by Dr. Ben Carson.
It advises: “By looking at those around you as well … you too can overcome obstacles and work toward achieving your dreams.”
Later, the campaign posted a picture of Carson with the boy, and said the two “bonded over shared experiences as young kids.”
Friday, on WABC’s “Election Central with Rita Cosby,” Carson said “It actually helps the student to understand that the potential that lies within each one of them is absolutely enormous.”
He added: “The media who was there, they were saying, ‘ahh. Something that we can jump on. A way we can drive wedges. A way we can make people think this is a horrible thing’ …. I talked to the boy afterwards and he was doing just fine. And I talked to him about potential and what you can do. It turns out in talking to some people he’s not that bad a student actually. It’s just that he tends to act out a little bit and that’s why they [the other students] were doing that.”