I’m writing and thinking this year about people who have made a difference through their life’s work.
I haven’t thought as much, though, about the forces that shape the adults that youth become.
Rhodes Scholar and former White House Fellow Wes Moore has.
His reflections on the influences that led to his life turning out so successfully while a young man of the same age and with an identical name ended up in prison for life without a chance of parole form the basis for The Other Wes Moore.
The book is essentially three stories in one: Moore’s own experiences of growing up in Baltimore and New York, the other Wes Moore’s childhood in Baltimore, and the connection that grew between the two men while the latter was in prison.
The first two strands are the strongest.
Moore writes in clear and relatively unsparing detail about his youth, showing the impact his father’s death and the tough neighborhoods in which he traveled came close to consigning him to a life on the streets and, quite likely, incarceration.
His mother and grandparents, as well as being sent to private and military schools, seem to have played a large role in keeping him from that fate.
The other Wes Moore did not have those benefits.
Instead, he barely knew his father, his brother Tony got involved in the drug trade before him and his neighborhood seemed even rougher than the one in which the first Wes lived.
His descent away from school and into the world of crime, teen parenthood and prison has an almost inexorable feel. One of the book’s more poignant sections comes where he tries to make a fresh start in a program outside of Baltimore. He rapidly earns his GED, builds his daughter a house and starts to see different possibilities for himself.
Shortly after he returns, however, the streets’ siren call and his family’s need for money proves almost irresistible, and his eventual imprisonment for a crime that he maintains he did not commit seems almost impossible to have turned out another way.
The relationship between the two is the weakest strand, as the author raises questions that he does not answer and that aspect of the book trails off at the end.
In the end, Moore does not have clear answers about what made the difference for him and for his namesake, but his account of both of them is thought provoking and intriguing material.
What do you think makes a difference in how young people’s lives turn out?