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The Wes Moores: two fatherless boys, two very different paths

Wes Moore
Courtesy of American Program Bureau
Wes Moore

A dozen years ago, Wes Moore’s hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun, carried an article about him becoming the first African-American graduate of Johns Hopkins to be named a Rhodes scholar. Elsewhere on the same page it also contained a story about another Wes Moore, who was on trial for his role in a botched robbery in which a police officer was killed.

The juxtaposition haunted the first Moore throughout his stint as a scholar at Oxford in England, so much so that when he got back he sent a letter to the second Moore, who had since been convicted and sentenced to prison. The inmate wrote back, and a long series of first letters and later visits ensued.

Their lives, it turned out, were remarkably similar. Both grew up fatherless, the cause of a river of pain. And despite each having a mother who tried to intervene over and over, both got into trouble — fights, delinquency, truancy — early on. In the end, they made very different choices.

In addition to the Rhodes scholarship, the first Moore went on to become a White House fellow under Condoleeza Rice, a veteran of combat in Afghanistan, a speaker at the 2008 DNC convention and the author of a widely praised book, about the letters and visits, “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates.”

Moore will speak here Nov. 16 at AchieveMpls’ 10th annual Education Partners luncheon. His keynote address will focus on the crucial role community support systems — dedicated networks of families, mentors, teachers, friends and colleagues — play in young people’s ability to succeed.

Tickets to the popular event are available online for $100 for individuals or $1,500 for a corporate table of 10. Proceeds will help support the nonprofit’s work supporting Minneapolis Public Schools through college- and career-readiness initiatives, by engaging the private sector and raising funds for a number of the district’s gap-closing strategies.   

Author was 3 when his father died

Future author Moore was 3 years old when his father, a broadcast journalist of the same name, died of a rare virus. Joy Moore moved her three children into her parents’ home in the Bronx. When he was 6, she enrolled him in an elite prep school. Moore didn’t fit in either place, in his impoverished neighborhood or with his wealthy classmates, and he was angry.

By 12, he was also in trouble, skipping school and getting arrested for spraying graffiti. Joy Moore begged his grandparents to take out a loan against their house so she could send him to a military boarding school.

“She didn’t know anybody in the military,” Moore said in a recent interview. “This was something that was very scary for her.” Plus, she was aware that her first seemingly heroic effort, the private school across town, had backfired.

He ran away five times, but the gambit eventually worked. At the boarding school, things began to change for Moore — and he began changing in response. It wasn’t so much the military aspect as the taste of success, he said.

“I don’t think there was an ‘ah-ha’ moment, per se,” he said. “With so much of my life and so many decisions I made it was two steps forward and one step back. There were a lot of little moments, and once they started to kind of pile up on each other it just started to make more sense.”

He was making friends who made good choices at school, and reconsidering his vantage on other relationships. “One time in particular I got into a fight in my neighborhood and I was talking with my uncle about it afterwards,” Moore recalled. “I told him that the full fight stemmed from one time when kids were saying, ‘Oh, you’ve changed,’ and all that kind of stuff.

'The problem isn't that you've changed'

“He said, ‘The problem isn’t that you’ve changed. The problem is that they haven’t.’ I think that was a really important moment. ...  There were a lot of little moments that I think eventually ended up compounding and started to develop a larger narrative, which is always important."

He graduated a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, and the successes snowballed. Today, Moore the author is also the founder of the Baltimore organization STAND!, which works with youth involved in the criminal justice system. “The Other Wes Moore” is under development by HBO. A young adult version of the book just became available.

The other Wes Moore has no idea if his father is alive. According to a USA Today profile of the two men, the other Moore saw his father just three times. At 14 he started selling drugs, at 16 he fathered the first of four kids — three of who are now being raised by his mother. At 18, he was charged with attempted murder.

Within a few years he had been incarcerated for good for his role in the death of the police officer shot by his brother, Baltimore Sgt. Bruce Prothero. The killing left five more children fatherless.

No defining failure in other Moore's life

Just as there was no single moment when author Moore’s life turned around, there was no defining failure that propelled the other Moore off course. “My mother didn’t care about us a lot more than Wes’ mother cared about her kids,” said the former. “Wes’ mother sacrificed for her kids. Wes’ mother moved. Wes’ mother put them into different schools. Wes’ mother tried everything that she knew how.

“I think what it was that was happening is sometimes, as we get into this realm, as we get into this path and these patterns, we end up compounded upon each other where good decisions can compound into better decisions, and bad decisions compound into worse decisions,” he added. “And you watch how second chances start becoming last chances very quickly.”

The two Moores spent a lot of time talking about how much had to do with their circumstances. “I asked him, ‘Do you think that we’re from a wrong environment?’ And Wes looked at me and he said, ‘Actually, I think we’re products of our expectations.’ ”

And the expectations of the mentors, teachers and others who can make up a young person’s support system. “What happened with Wes, quite honestly, is no different than what happened with far too many kids in our community where, you know, you combine a lack of personal decision-making with a lack of societal interest you can have very bad results.”

The solution, in his view, is a holistic approach: “The best way you can support a child is by making sure that child comes up in a strong, supportive home. The best way to help that home is by making sure that home exists in a strong, supportive community. And the best way to help that community is by making sure you have strong educational institutions in the community that can help that child and the family grow together.”

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Comments (2)

Wes Moore visit to U of M

Excellent story. Readers should know that Wes will be giving a FREE lecture, open to the public, at the University of Minnesota on November 16, at 7:30 p.m., in The Commons Hotel (Stadium Village), 615 Washington Ave. S.E., Minneapolis. He will also have a discussion with students and community members of the College of Education and Human Development, who selected The Other Wes Moore as this year's common book. A book signing will take place after the lecture/discussion.

The operative phrase

…has been made into an object of ridicule, at least in some circles, despite its common-sense appeal and practicality:

“It takes a village.”

This old white guy has a lot in common with the Wes Moores, at least in terms of family circumstances and growing up. My father was killed when I was 7, and the stepfather who came into my life several years later made plain to all involved that he had no interest in stepchildren, and quite frankly, I could have gone either way, just as in the case of the Wes Moores. My mother, like the Moore mothers, tried everything she could think of, including travel and enrolling me in a private boy’s school. As was the case with the successful Wes Moore, I didn’t fit at all in the prep school environment.

In retrospect, what seems to have been a determining influence in my case was the neighborhood. It was the 1950s, of course, which made some difference – we’d go out to play on a Saturday, and the only parental instruction thought necessary was “Be home for supper at 5” – but my playmates and their parents had the same kinds of behavioral and academic expectations as my mother, and that neighborhood reinforcement, especially in terms of what behavior was OK or not-OK, what was considered fair and not-fair, played a significant role, I think.

I’m also inclined to agree with the notion that there was never some sort of epiphany – a single event or moment when I consciously decided on a particular path. It was, as they’ve suggested, the gradual accumulation of small decisions and events. Small successes build upon each other, as do small failures, and it’s important to children growing up for there to be someone, or better yet, a whole group of someones, who are paying attention, congratulating and reinforcing the small successes, and doing whatever seems necessary and appropriate to cushion and redirect the small failures.

As a grandparent, I’m reminded with some frequency that raising a child requires an approach that, for lack of a better term, I usually refer to as being “relentless.” You have to pay attention, all the time, and the child has to know that you’re paying attention every day.