As a writer, my life is framed by what if, the question at the base of all great stories. It sparks my creativity and leads me off on a journey of words. But not only in my writing do I find that question lingering in my mind. That wondering seeps out into other areas. I found myself asking many what if questions as I watched the George Zimmerman trial unfold. What if Trayvon had picked a different time to go to the store? What if George Zimmerman hadn’t followed Trayvon around the neighborhood with a loaded gun? What if the verdict in the case would have been different?
It’s challenging to look at these types of questions and not apply them to our life. Like the choose-your-own-ending books from my childhood, I wonder where I would have been if I made different decisions. What if one or two details essential to my development had been changed? What if my life was exactly opposite than what it is now?
Not many of us have seen the complete answer to those questions. We have caught glimpses of it in the lives of people around us. Often we encounter those who share a similar situations but who have made different, and sometimes, disastrous decisions. We had singular situations in common with others, but what if we met someone whose life was a study in contrast to ours?
This is the story of Wes Moore, the author of “The Other Wes Moore.” He caught a glimpse of the possibility of his alternate life on the day the Baltimore Sun ran an article about him receiving a Rhodes Scholarship. That same day, the paper ran an article about four young men being sought for a robbery turned murder. One of the young men was named Wes Moore. Told in a compelling parallel fashion, “The Other Wes Moore” chronicles the lives of the two Wes Moores, their upbringing and for one, his downfall.
Those two articles in the Baltimore Sun began a journey. Moore refers to the effect that the two articles had on him as “haunting.” That sense of haunting saturates the pages, especially when the two finally connect, one on his way to becoming a White House Fellow and the other to serving time as convicted felon. They formed a unique relationship and the book is a compilation of the two men’s memories and conversations.
Both young men were presented with the same opportunities to do both good and evil. Spending their formative years in Baltimore City, both were presented with drugs, crime and sexual encounters. I think that is what is so striking about the story: the two men share so much in common like fatherlessness, inner city struggles, academic challenges, but their lives turned out so differently.
Very differently. The author Wes Moore has gone on the pen several books, served as a White House Fellow and on the board of both the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and Johns Hopkins University. Author Moore has started an organization called STAND! that helps youth in Baltimore. The other Wes Moore is serving a life sentence for the murder of an off-duty police officer named Sgt. Bruce A. Prothero despite his most recent attempt for a new trial in July 2013. The two men’s lives continue on different trajectories, the difference between them continuing to grow.
Being a native Baltimorean, I can’t help but see myself in this story, especially since some of the drama in the story played out in places I know well. There were times that I didn’t have to imagine the street or neighborhood both Moores grew up in. I’d been to those same neighborhoods, walked those same streets. I faced the same challenges they had. But even with having that in common, my life is still different from either of them.
The author does not try to explain or analyze the outcome of their lives. He pulls the reader in with the curiosity of contrast. He does not advise or instruct. He only tells the story of two lives. In that, however, he reveals an important truth: decisions matter.
So often while reading this book, I saw the difference one little decision could make. Yes, there were some larger decisions made, like the author’s mother’s decision to relocate. There were, however, smaller decisions made that drastically changed the Wes Moores’ lives. Decisions, like friends, academics, and sadly, drug use that the younger generation sometimes carelessly make. The resounding message of this book: even simple choices impact a lifetime.
This book also raises a very familiar question about the African American community: what impact does environment have on upbringing? It would seem that the Wes Moores’ story would shatter any ideas that one cannot overcome a challenging childhood. The author grew up fatherless, improvised and had very common academic struggles. He proves that advancement can be made in any life, no matter how it begins. Even with this example, and many others, another question is raised: why are these stories the exception and not the norm?
As I read the book, I found myself wondering what made a difference in my life. I could have been a teen mother with more children than I could raise. I could have gotten a drug dealer boyfriend, became a drug addict, and lived a life of danger because of that relationship. The opportunities were certainly there.
I think for my life, the difference came because people stepped in at the right time and pointed me in the right direction. There was a teacher, librarian, and fellow church members who invested wisdom and guidance in my life at critical moments.
We would all like to fix the “system” that our young people are falling into, but I believe that begins with individuals. Maybe we can’t save every Wes Moore, but we can save the ones we have influence on. We can reach out to the one we see making similar decisions that we made, or almost made, and share the wisdom our choices brought us. We can help change his or her story with another question: what if I helped someone else?