By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; A15
It is a rare and frightening gift for someone to glimpse an alternate fate in another life.
On the same day that Wes Moore was reading an article in the Baltimore Sun about his receipt of a Rhodes scholarship, he also read an article about an unrelated Wes Moore arrested for murder. Both Wes Moores shared Baltimore roots and similar stories of poverty and father absence. One graduated from college and became a White House Fellow; the other will spend the rest of his life at the Jessup Correctional Institution.
Wes Moore contacted his namesake in prison out of what he calls "pure curiosity." The result is a book, "The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates," that illuminates the roles of disadvantage, privilege and personal responsibility in shaping a life.
Both Wes Moores emerge as bright, energetic boys facing betrayals they did not deserve and temptations they did not resist. The author Moore vividly describes a circa 1990 urban world flooded by crack, set to a hip-hop soundtrack and ruled by a violent, lawless conception of male honor. The lure of crime is indistinguishable from the appeal of entrepreneurship; the profits of the drug trade are limited only by the hours a teen is willing to spend on the street. It is a world of public schools that reward disruption with attention, of unrealistic expectations of sports and music stardom, of public housing projects nicknamed "Murder Homes."
Both Wes Moores end up handcuffed in the back of police cars. Both receive second chances. Only one robs a jewelry store and kills an off-duty police officer who had five children.
The author Moore admirably refuses to draw simplistic, self-serving comparisons. He admits a broad role for luck, fate and personality. But the two stories, for all their variations, have a clear theme: the importance of parental influence and the desperate search for substitutes when that influence is absent.
Both boys had caring, single mothers. But tenacity turns out to be as important as caring. The imprisoned Wes Moore's mother lived in denial about her son's drug dealing. The author's mother had "hands that hit so hard you had to be hit only once to know you never wanted to be hit again." For years, she slept on a couch in the living room, standing guard over her children in a troubled neighborhood. She sent her son to a private school she couldn't afford. When he began skipping class and failing, she threatened him with military school. "She had to be bluffing," thought Moore. She wasn't.
In the most wrenching moment of the book, the troubled Wes Moore encounters his father, whom he has rarely seen, in a stupor on a relative's couch. After he was awakened, this father looks into the eyes of his son and asks, "Who are you?" The author's father dies when Wes is 3 but remains an image of manhood, "calm, reassuring, hardworking and sober." A father who dies remains a presence in a child's life; a father who leaves is an absence never fully filled.
Particularly when a father is absent, examples and mentors assume great importance. The imprisoned Wes Moore finds a model in his gangster older brother. Sent to a military school in Pennsylvania, the author runs away three times in the first four days. But he eventually encounters a 19-year-old African American cadet, leading one of the proudest units at the school. "I had never seen anything like that before. I had never seen a man, a peer, demand that much respect from his people. . . . This was real respect, the kind you can't beat or scare out of people. That's when I started to understand that I was in a different environment. Not simply because I was in the middle of Pennsylvania instead of the Bronx or Baltimore. It was a different psychological environment, where my normal expectations were inverted, where leadership was honored and class clowns were ostracized." This is military life's transforming effect on many young men -- the discovery of a kind of male honor rooted in character.
There remains a mystery at the heart of individual fate. Many are born into circumstances that would test the strongest character. Many are born with unearned advantages and privileges they do not even recognize.
But there is one decisive form of privilege that many of us can control and confer to others -- the tenacious, demanding love of a parent or mentor.