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Author Wes Moore’s Book Explores His Own Alternate Reality

May 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Judy Woodruff talks to Baltimore native Wes Moore about his new book, 'The Other Wes Moore' which explores the stories of two inner-city young men who share the same name, but lead very different lives.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: two men, one name, two different lives. Why does one go one way and not the other?

That’s the theme of Baltimore native Wes Moore’s new book about choices and expectations.

WES MOORE, Author, “The Other Wes Moore”: These were areas that we knew. These were blocks that we knew.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To hear this Wes Moore tell it, his new book, “The Other Wes Moore,” about two boys living in Baltimore with similar stories and an identical name, can be traced back to a conversation he had with his mother a decade ago.

WES MOORE: I was a junior at Johns Hopkins at the time, and I was doing a study abroad in South Africa, and then my mother called to say, you know, I have got something crazy to tell you. There are posters in your neighborhood for — looking for Wes Moore for killing a police officer.

And I was like, what? And that’s when she said, there are wanted posters all over different homes and buildings in your neighborhood saying, if you see Wes Moore, do not approach because he’s assumed to be armed and very dangerous.

And that was really the beginning and the thing that really triggered my interest to want to learn more about the other Wes Moore and about his life and circumstances.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As the years went by and Wes looked more closely at the other Wes’ life, he found that, while their present circumstances were starkly different, their pasts were very much alike.

Both Weses were raised by their mothers, had troubles in school and run-ins with the law. But that is where their stories diverge. Wes’ mother, widowed when he was very young, decided to send him to a military academy in Pennsylvania at the age of 13.

From there, Wes attended Johns Hopkins University, and later won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. As an Army Reservist, he served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Meanwhile, the other Wes began dealing drugs, dropped out of school, and fathered his first child at the age of 16. Then, in 2001, the other Wes was convicted for his role in the shooting death of a Baltimore County police sergeant during a jewelry store robbery a year earlier — his sentence, life in prison without the possibility of parole.

WES MOORE: The story always stuck with me. And I was — you know, how did this happen, where you had two kids, who came up in similar neighborhoods, who were around the same age, who both came up in single-parent households, who both had trouble with school and trouble with the law growing up? How did it happen that we end up on two completely different paths?

And, a few years after I learned about him, I decided to write him a note in prison. So, I got his information and wrote him a note with a list of questions. And I sent it off to Jessup Correctional Institution. And, then, a month later, I get a note back from him, from Jessup Correctional Institution from Wes Moore, answering a lot of those questions. And that is how — you know, the relationship that we — that we built, that’s how it began.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, he answered the questions, and you wanted to know more about him.

WES MOORE: Yes. And that — that letter just — just triggered more questions. And, literally, that one letter turned into dozens of letters, and those dozens of letters have turned into dozens of visits.

And now, you know, I know — I have visited Wes over two dozen times. I know his family, his friends, his kids. And, so, really, that was the origin and the foundation for what the story is built on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, were there truly that many similarities between the two of you?

WES MOORE: There were.

There — and, in fact, one thing I realize is how many — there were even more similarities than I first thought as I was just reading the articles. And one thing I say in the book is that, you know, the chilling truth is that his story could have been mine, and the tragedy is that my story could have been his. And I think that’s absolutely true.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also write, Wes, about expectations, the different expectations. And you had an important conversation…

WES MOORE: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … with the other Wes while he was in prison about that.

WES MOORE: I think expectations play a — play a huge role.

And, as Wes even said to me, where he said, you know, if people expect you to do well in school, you will do well in school. And if people expect you to graduate, then you will graduate. And if people expect you to be on the corner selling drugs, then that’s what you will do as well.

You know, one thing my mother always says — and I think it’s accurate — is, kids need to think that you care before they care what you think. And I think, for so many kids, particularly ones who are growing up in very precarious environments, many kids don’t feel like many people care about them and care about their future.

When you have a child who is going to a school that you have a better chance of dropping out than of completing high school, or you live in a city with a recidivism rate of 60 percent and 70 percent, or kids who are bullied so bad that they feel like suicide is the best option for them, it becomes very difficult for kids to carry that burden of adulthood or that burgeoning adulthood on their own.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you really believe that you could have ended up with a fate like his, and he could have ended up with a life like yours? Is it really that simple, do you think?

WES MOORE: I do, and especially — especially after talking with him so much, and learning about his life and his history, and learning about his family.

I think about some of the decisions that I made. And had it not been for a lot of luck, had it not been for people stepping up for me, when they didn’t have to, had it not been for my mother taking some pretty aggressive and creative decisions on where I was going to go to school and how I was going to be, I could have easily seen myself going in another direction, and also because I know the kids who I grew up with.

And I know, for so many kids I grew up with, their story is a lot closer to Wes’ than it is to mine. And I look at Wes, who — and Wes is not a learned guy. He doesn’t have a bunch of letters after his name, but he’s a very smart guy. And he’s very insightful about the neighborhoods and the communities and things that are going on.

And this is also a guy with leadership ability. I mean, when he was 14 and 15 years old, he was running a significant drug operation in Baltimore. So, this is a guy who understands the basics of leadership and the basics of — of — and has a basic understanding of what life was like, and has a lot intellectual capacity, and just made some unforgivable decisions.

So, I honestly believe, had there been that proper intervention in his life, or had there not been that proper intervention in my life, that our fates absolutely could have been definitely different from where they ended up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, then, what are the lessons from this? I mean, at the end of the book, you list a number of agencies, resources for people to turn to in inner-city situations like here in Baltimore.

But what — what should people take away? Because you look at somebody like the other Wes Moore, and he has no hope for the rest of his life.

WES MOORE: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What can give people hope?

WES MOORE: I think the thing that can give people hope is, when they are able to see these stories, they’re able to see just how blurry at times that line is between the people that we will look to and admire, and the people who we admonish and push off to the side.

The — our potency as people, our potency as human beings is beyond our capacity that’s in front of us right now. And, sometimes, it’s simple things. It’s simple conversations. It’s a simple tutoring session. It’s simply showing someone that you care enough about their future and care enough about their life, and the massive amount of impact that you can have, not just on their life, but on the lives that they’re going to touch as well.

So, I think the larger point is, is that this book is not — I don’t want it to be a novel that people just pick up and say, great story, and throw off the side. It’s a call to action. It’s a call to action for every community, for every environment, both rural and urban, because the fact is, there are Wes Moores in every community in this country.

The question is, which type of Wes Moores are we helping to foster, and what type of environment are we helping to create for them?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wes Moore, author of “The Other Wes Moore,” thank you very much for talking with us.

WES MOORE: Thank you so much. Thank you.