Lessons from “The Other Wes Moore”

I just finished reading The Other Wes Moore, a true story that chronicles the lives of two young men (both named Wes Moore) who grew up in Baltimore, just a few blocks apart from each other. Both boys lived in poverty, grew up in single parent homes, and performed poorly in school. One of the young men (the book’s author) went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, while the other is now serving life in prison.

Wes Moore (the Rhodes Scholar) writes, “the chilling truth is that Wes’s story could have been mine; the tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

So what made the difference? Moore recounts the life histories of both young men with detail and precision, but never interprets the evidence. Although one chapter title (“Choices and Second Chances”) is couched in the language of personal responsibility (suggesting that the different decisions made by each Wes Moore sealed their respective fates); Moore mostly leaves the reader to draw her own conclusions about what caused the paths of two similar children to diverge.

In the book’s epilogue, Moore points out that every reader has a different interpretation of the story. For me, there was one difference between the two Wes Moores that is eerily relevant to our current political climate. Wes Moore (the Rhodes Scholar) had a college educated mother and college educated grandparents. Although they were poor, Wes’s mother earned enough to send her kids to private school, and eventually used her social connections to send Wes to military school.

The other Wes Moore’s mother, Mary, was offered a Pell Grant to attend Johns Hopkins University, an opportunity which might have offered her a ticket out of poverty. However, once the Reagan Administration took over it slashed funds for Pell Grants (among other social programs), and Mary’s scholarship was revoked.

Mary never attended college. She raised two sons alone and worked multiple jobs in order to feed her family. Because Mary had to work long hours, the Moore boys were usually unsupervised. There was no one home to make sure that Wes went to school (unlike the other Wes, who lived with his grandparents), and he got involved selling drugs. In my opinion, Wes Moore’s future was decided the moment his mother got a letter in mail stating her scholarship had been cut.

The story of the “other” Wes Moore and his mother Mary calls to mind Langston Hughes’ famous poem, A Dream Deferred:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Mary was denied access to higher education. Her son, the “other” Wes Moore was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the armed robbery of a jewelry store and the murder of a security guard present at the scene of the crime. If this isn’t an example of a “dream deferred” resulting in an explosion, I don’t know what is.

Earlier this week, Congressman Paul Ryan unveiled a budget proposal that would gut spending for some of our country’s most essential social welfare programs. If this bill comes to pass we can expect that many of our nation’s poor will be denied vital services and supports, much that same way that budget cuts two decades ago resulted in Mary losing her Pell Grant.

Republicans are using the fiscal “crisis” to justify policies which would shift the burden of the recession from Wall Street banks unto the shoulders of ordinary people. Instead of instituting financial reforms such as enacting a financial speculation tax or removing the hedge fund loophole (which could  raise $100 billion and $15 billion in revenue respectively according to a report prepared by National People’s Action), politicians are pushing to trim public employee pensions, strip workers of their collective bargaining rights, and cut social welfare programs. Essentially, Ryan’s plan would take money from the people who are already hurting the most from recent economic downfall, rather than raising funds from wealthy banks who could more easily absorb the hit.

I worry that if Ryan’s budget comes to pass, we will see even higher percentages of poor males spending their life behind bars, while success stories like that of Wes Moore the Rhodes Scholar  become obsolete.

    • Cristina
    • April 9th, 2011

    This post comes at a good time. I am just finishing up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (I think you would really enjoy it), and am looking for my next book. Are you graduating this spring? What is next!?

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