It’s the last week in December and it’s Rosh Hashana’s Book of Life redux for me. Who shall live and who shall die? And everything in between.
I read a book recently that challenged my notion of predetermined destiny, of essentially leaving things up to God’s will. Wes Moore’s memoir turns out to be a neat parable of two radically different lives that diverged from the same starting point. Moore is the author of a book I can’t stop thinking about called “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates.”
Around the time that the author became Johns Hopkins University’s first Rhodes Scholar in 13 years and the university’s first African- American Rhodes scholar, another Wes Moore – a contemporary – was wanted for the murder of a police officer in an armed robbery for which he would eventually go to jail for life. That was 2000.
“One of us is free and has experienced things that he never even knew to dream about as a kid,” the author Wes Moore writes in his memoir. “The other will spend every day until his death behind bars. … The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”
The two men grew up in the same tough West Baltimore neighborhood, but irony does not hang over this book like a dark cloud. Nor does Moore turn his memoir or the other Wes Moore’s biography into a “there but for the grace of G-d go I” story. Yes, Wes Moore the author went to Oxford, was a decorated war hero who served in Afghanistan, and was a White House Fellow. And yes, the other Wes Moore is serving a life sentence without parole and became a grandfather at the age of 33.
Through prison visits and letters, the two Wes Moores bared their souls to one another and laid out their lives side by side. Poverty was both the level playing field and the catalyst that propelled these two men in opposite directions. Both of them grew up without their fathers – author Wes’ father died when he was 4, prisoner Wes never met his father. Both were grief stricken. But one mourns the death of a loving father, while the other seethes over his absent one. The author’s mother was a teacher who kept careful track of her son’s growing apathy toward school and attraction to life on the streets. She moved her family to the Bronx when Wes was a young teenager to be near loving grandparents at the ready to help Wes and his sisters. Wes won a scholarship to Riverdale Country Day School, but he couldn’t connect to his rich white classmates. He missed school and failed most of his classes.
But the Rhodes Scholar Wes Moore had a mother who refused to give up on him. She bought her son Mitch Albom’s book about a Michigan basketball team, and his spark for reading caught on fire. She scraped together tuition money to send him to a military school in Pennsylvania where he thrived and became one of the youngest officers in its history.
The other Wes Moore’s mother did her best to protect Wes from the streets. She did that and more while trying to make rent and put food on the table. It’s bittersweet that when someone bothered to teach the other Wes Moore to read, he soared up to college level.
There were other aching near misses in the other Wes Moore’s life. His mother enrolled at Johns Hopkins in the early ’80s, determined to get an education that would have propelled her into the middle class. Government cuts abruptly ended her college career. Wes himself went through a year-long Job Corps program, earning high scores on his GED and training as a carpenter. But there was no job to be had afterward, and the money to be made on the streets was too tempting.
Two roads diverged in a wood. Can I ever be sure that I’m on the best road? Which road should I point my children to? Does fulfilling one’s destiny depend on knowing when and if to switch paths? Wes Moore the author might say that one can create a happy, important fate from smoke and ashes. He might say that he’s living proof that you create your own fate. Do you?