When I was in college, there was another woman with my name (Julie Ward (click to read the story of her murder, the mystery of it, and the obstruction of justice at the hands of the British police)), who was murdered in Africa. I remember seeing an article in the paper about it, and clipping it out and hanging it on my bathroom wall, with a certain degree of gallows humor. I wrote on the clipping, “One Down…”, because it reminded me of The Terminator, when Arnold Schwarzenegger comes to the front door, says “Sarah Conner”, and then kills the poor woman. I know, it’s sick. I was young. But while I joked about it, there’s always been that part of me that has paid attention to it, and remembers her and her family, and how even though we had almost nothing in common, we had the same name, and so I felt somehow connected.
So it was interesting to hear a somewhat similar tale on NPR a few weeks ago. They’ve been running a series on Talk of the Nation where they discuss Freshmen Reads. The idea is that at some universities, the incoming Freshman class is assigned a book to read, and then they talk about it, I assume in their English class. On this segment, they were talking about The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. Wes Moore is a young man who grew up on the mean streets of Baltimore, Maryland. A young working class black man, raised by his single mother, who had dreams of something better for her son. He skips school, isn’t interested in his classes, starts down the wrong path. In a neighborhood where crack is king, and the best way to make money is selling drugs, it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole quite quickly, perhaps never to return. Somehow, his mother and family are able to pull him back onto the right path. His grandparents mortgage their home (and their retirement) in order to pay for his first year at Valley Forge Military Academy & College. There, he meets people he can admire, and learns how to find something to admire within himself, which turns him around. When he graduates, he goes to college, first at a community college, then at Johns Hopkins, and then becomes a paratrooper in the Marines. He goes to Afghanistan, and is a decorated veteran of the war. He is a Rhodes Scholar. He travels to South Africa on an exchange program, and learns about apartheid and politics. He goes to Oxford. He works as an assistant to Condoleezza Rice. He speaks at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. He is happily married and successful.
Wes Moore is also another young man, growing up on the mean streets of Baltimore. About the same age as the first Wes Moore, and growing up just a few blocks away. Another young working class black man, raised by his single mother, who has dreams of something better for her son. He skips school, isn’t interested in his classes, and starts down the wrong path. The difference is that this Wes Moore falls down the rabbit hole, and isn’t able to extricate himself. At one point, young, with four children to support, born to two women he is also trying to do right by, he tries to steer the straight path, to get out of dealing drugs and dangerous living. But the money to be made as a young black man with an 8th grade education and a criminal record is minimum wage or just slightly more, and he is in despair of how to support his family. So he does exactly the wrong thing. The very very wrong thing. He gets involved in a jewelry store robbery, where a security guard is shot and killed, leaving behind his own wife and children to try to cope without him in their life. This Wes Moore is convicted and sent to prison for life, with no possibility of parole.
The first Wes Moore was traveling to South Africa on his Rhodes Scholarship when his mother told him about the newspaper reports about the second Wes Moore. The similarities to his own story stuck in his head, and he began to wonder what might be different between their stories, how his life turned out so well, while the other Wes Moore’s story turned out so tragically. He wrote to Wes Moore in prison, and to his surprise, he was open to the idea of being interviewed. They talked many times, and Wes Moore’s family opened up and told Wes Moore (I know, confusing, right?) about their life during that time, the dangers and failures that pulled their family down. The resulting story is a compelling, tragic read. Tragic for Wes and his family, and even more tragic for the security guard who is shot down in cold blood. Plenty of tragedy to go around, and a big question about what makes a person’s fate. Is it society, is it their own strengths and weaknesses, is it the support and love of their family?
The most chilling part of the story, to me, was how Wes Moore, the convict, even 10 years later, still refused to admit that he was present at the scene of the crime. Even though there were 20 witnesses, and DNA evidence, that showed he was there. Then there was the issue of responsibility and cause.
I asked a question: “Do you think we’re all just products of our environments?” His smile dissolved into a smirk, with the left side of his face resting at ease.
“I think so, or maybe the products of our expectations.”
“Others’ expectations of us or our expectations for ourselves?”
“I mean others’ expectations that you take on as your own.”
I realized then how difficult it is to separate the two. The expectations that others place on us help us form our expectations of ourselves.
“We will do what others expect of us,” Wes said. “If they expect us to graduate, we will graduate. If they expect us to get a job, we will get a job. If they expect us to go to jail, then that’s where we will end up too. At some point you lose control.”
I sympathized with him, but I recoiled from his ability to shed responsibility seamlessly and drape it at the feet of others.
“True, but it’s easy to lose control when you were never looking for it in the first place.”
The message perhaps is that we should not discount nor ignore the role of the many variables in a person’s destiny (family, poverty, education, etc.), while at the same time, we should not underestimate the roles of self-determination and character.