Haven Langley, a sixth-grader at East Hamilton Middle-High School in Ooltewah, already has $1,000 in scholarship money stashed away for college that's earning interest.
Haven won the scholarship money last year when she was a fifth-grader at Apison Elementary School from the Carson Schools Fund, a public charity founded in 1994 by Dr. Benjamin Carson and his wife, Candy Carson. He's a retired brain surgeon who may run as a Republican candidate for president in 2016.
Even before Haven won the scholarship, she was a Carson fan. She and three older siblings had all read his autobiography, "Gifted Hands," which tells of Carson's journey from a poor and troubled youth in inner-city Detroit to world renown as the first neurosurgeon to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head.
"It's one of the best books I ever read," Haven said. "That's why I was really excited [to win the scholarship]. It was Ben Carson, and I had read his book. Last year, I got him to sign it."
Carson was the keynote speaker Sunday as Haven and about 100 other fourth- through 11th-grade students from around the Southeast were honored by the Carson Scholars Fund at a luncheon at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Carson said he and his wife were inspired to found the scholarship program because they were alarmed by how poorly U.S. students were doing in science, math and other subjects compared to students in other nations.
The scholarships, which have been awarded 6,700 times in all 50 states, go to students who have good grades and a high level of volunteerism. Students can win multiple Carson scholarships over their school years.
"Tennessee is a special place for me," Carson told the audience of about 300 students and parents. "My parents came from here."
His mother was one of 24 children, he said. She married at 13, then later divorced her husband after she learned he was a bigamist.
His mother had only a third-grade education and didn't want her sons to struggle in dire poverty. So after praying for guidance, she decided to make her boys turn off the TV set and get two books each week from the Detroit Public Library. They had to read and write book reports about them. Even though Carson's mother was illiterate, she fooled her sons into thinking she read the reports.
"I was a horrible student," Carson said. "Because of the books, even though we didn't have money, I could go anywhere. My imagination began taking me everywhere."
The Carsons Scholars Fund has established more than 120 reading rooms, whimsical spaces that encourage kids to read, in schools in about 20 states. The two newest -- and the first in Tennessee -- will open in Murfreesboro, Carson announced Sunday.
Even after his academic performance improved, Carson said he struggled with a horrible temper. That ended at age 14, he said, when he stabbed a friend. The blade hit the friend's belt buckle and he was unhurt. Still, the friend ran away "terrified," Carson said during an interview before the luncheon.
"I was more terrified, recognizing that I was trying to kill somebody," he said.
That incident led Carson to an epiphany. Right afterward, he locked himself in a room for three hours and prayed and read the Bible.
"Selfishness is what causes anger," Carson decided. "It's always about me, myself and I. If you learn how to step out of the center of the circle and make it be about someone else, you won't be angry. That was the last day I had an angry [outburst]."
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.