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Thursday, March 24, 2011

BPL Book Discussion: The Other Wes Moore

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates
On Monday despite many people being on vacation, we still had 12 people at the BPL to discuss The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore.

Wes Moore has turned this book into a movement.  Before reading this book, I would suggest going to his website.  In fact, here is the official summary from that site:

Two kids with the same name, liv­ing in the same city. One grew up to be a Rhodes Scholar, dec­o­rated com­bat vet­eran, White House Fel­low, and busi­ness leader. The other is serv­ing a life sen­tence in prison for felony mur­der. Here is the story of two boys and the jour­ney of a generation. 
In Decem­ber 2000, the Bal­ti­more Sun ran a small piece about Wes Moore, a local stu­dent who had just received a Rhodes Schol­ar­ship. The same paper also ran a series of arti­cles about four young men who had allegedly killed a police offi­cer in a spec­tac­u­larly botched armed rob­bery. The police were still hunt­ing for two of the sus­pects who had gone on the lam, a pair of broth­ers. One was named Wes Moore. 
Wes just couldn’t shake off the unset­tling coin­ci­dence, or the inkling that the two shared much more than space in the same news­pa­per. After fol­low­ing the story of the rob­bery, the man­hunt, and the trial to its con­clu­sion, he wrote a let­ter to the other Wes, now a con­victed mur­derer serv­ing a life sen­tence with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of parole. His let­ter ten­ta­tively asked the ques­tions that had been haunt­ing him: Who are you? How did this happen? 
That let­ter led to a cor­re­spon­dence and rela­tion­ship that has lasted for sev­eral years. Over dozens of let­ters and prison vis­its, Wes dis­cov­ered that the other Wes had a life not unlike his own: Both had grown up in sim­i­lar neigh­bor­hoods and had dif­fi­cult child­hoods, both were father­less; they’d hung out on sim­i­lar cor­ners with sim­i­lar crews, and both had run into trou­ble with the police. At each stage of their young lives they had come across sim­i­lar moments of deci­sion, yet their choices and the peo­ple in their lives would lead them to aston­ish­ingly dif­fer­ent destinies. 
Told in alter­nat­ing dra­matic nar­ra­tives that take read­ers from heart-wrenching losses to moments of sur­pris­ing redemp­tion,The Other Wes Moore tells the story of a gen­er­a­tion of boys try­ing to find their way in a chal­leng­ing and at times, hos­tile world.
Our discussion was long and animated.  Every single person had something to say about this alternatively inspiring and heart-breaking story.  I want to start with where we ended to set the tone for the discussion notes to follow.  After our 90 minute discussion, I asked the group to give me a word or phrase which they would use to describe this book.  Here is what I got:
  • Nature vs Nurture
  • Hope
  • Don't give up on people
  • Inspirational
Also, before the discussion began, I set some ground rules to help the discussion of a book about 2 people with the same name go more smoothly.  We referred to the author Wes Moore as Wes 1 and the incarcerated Wes Moore as Wes 2.  I will use this designation in the notes that follow.

Now on to the discussion itself.
  • I began asking who liked, didn't like and was so-so on the book.  For the first time in awhile, we had 0 dislikes!  8 liked the book, and 4 were so-so.  The so-so votes were mostly because although they were engaged by the story, the writing was plain.  This is true.  Wes 1 is a bright, well educated young man, but he has no training as a writer or even a journalist.  This is a solidly written book, but compared to our last discussion title, Rush Home Road, which was simply put, beautifully written, with lyrical and magical language, The Other Wes Moore was comprised of powerful, but declarative sentences.  Once we agreed that it was the content, not the language used that we would discuss, everyone dove right in.
  • Many participants mentioned how they always enjoy books about social history, but it was the personal nature of this story that really drew the participants in.  One participant said she was so engrossed in the story that when Wes 2 turned his back on the job training and went back to selling drugs, she had to set the book aside.  She was just so sad for him.  Another participant talked about how we always hear how much tougher it is for young, black men, but this really made her understand WHY.  Another shared how this opened her eyes to specific situations with real live people.  Finally on this topic, someone shared how the personal story and the social dynamics that led each Wes to a different fate were interesting.
  • People appreciated the details Wes included about the prison waiting room, the corners where drugs were sold, the living conditions, and the Bronx during the 1980s.  Everyone agreed these places came alive for us.  And that says a lot since we are a long way from 1980s inner city Baltimore or the Bronx.
  • We discussed at length how both Weses were very bright but Wes 2 fell through the cracks.  We talked about the failures of the education system for certain students.  Even Wes 1 almost fell through the cracks and he was at a private school and eventually military school.
  • This led to a discussion of bad teachers vs bad parents. The group shared personal experiences and opinions on this topic.  We came down agreeing that teachers cannot do everything, but that  parents also need to take more responsibility.  One participant said this book should be required 8th grade reading.  I added that Wes Moore agrees, and he travels all over the country talking to at risk young people and their parents and teachers.  Click here to see more on that topic.
  • I asked the group to consider why Wes 1 was so haunted by Wes 2, so haunted that years after the fact, Wes 1 tracked Wes 2 down and began the dialog that led to this book.  Someone offered that she felt Wes 1 genuinely wanted to figure out why it wasn't him.  It all goes back to the quote that defines this book: "The chilling truth is that his life could have been mine.  The tragedy is that my story could have been his."  We also felt that Wes wrote the book to help others.  That is evident when you get to the end and he has a "call to action" with long lists of groups and resources to try to stop young people from turning to a life of crime.
  • Then, a participant chimed in that she felt he wrote the book to explore the age old dilemma of nature versus nurture.  We discussed this at length, and decided that the book as a whole falls in the middle here, with a lean toward nurture.  Both boys had serious intervention.  For Wes it was his mom.  She stayed on him even when he was ditching school and failing.  She didn't take defeat and sent him to military school.  However, once there, Wes tried to run away 5 times.  It took him to decide that he was going to not try to run away a sixth time for him to succeed.  Wes 2 had one last chance when he entered Job Corps.  He got serious, government funded job training.  He was a star of the program.  He was a leader to others, but when he went back home and worked for awhile, he couldn't take the pressure of supporting his family and went back to the drug trade.  We felt Wes 2 needed a network after Job Corps to step in and support him when times got tough, but he still needed to decide for himself to stay on the right path.
  • These 2 moments described above were talked about at length.  To us, they represented the "life changing moments" for the 2 Weses.  Wes 1 decided to stay at military school and was very successful.  His life has only gone up from that one moment, the moment he stopped resisting.  For Wes 2, he had a series of ups and downs, but after he gave up on his Job Corps training, it was all downhill.  The group then shared life changing moments in their own lives, or the lives of their children.  We all appreciated everyone's honesty and willingness to share.  This is a great discussion point to get your group to look at the larger issues of the book.  It is easy to get caught up in the 2 Weses personal stories, but we should not lose sight of the universal message of this book.
  • The Weses talk about expectations, saying if your network of family and friends expects you to succeed you will and if they expect you to fail you will.  We talked about this.  Is it that simple?  We decided no.  This means that when you fail, you can blame others, but ultimately we agreed that in this book, and in life, when you fail as badly as Wes 2 has, you have no one to blame but yourself.  Even Wes 1, who had a supportive family had to make the decision for himself to stay in school.  However, if we are saying Wes 1 succeeded due to more nurturing, there is a problem with this argument.  How can I be the only one to blame for my failures if I get less nurturing? If I need intervention from good people to succeed and I don't get that intervention, when I fail is it my fault?  We decided this is a problem too big to discuss in book group, but maybe solving this huge dichotomy holds the key to solving the problems described in this book.
  • We ended by talking about what ideas the book gave us for ameliorating the conditions that led to the imprisonment of Wes 2.  The question, which I found here, asks, "What can be done to ensure a more productive life for the many young men who grow up on the streets."  We had some great ideas from the group:
    • Get this book in the hands of young people
    • Get involved by mentoring.  If you can turn around 1 kid that is more important than helping no one.
    • Teach parenting skills.  We could see how Wes 2 was completely unprepared to be a father, by no fault of his own.  Specifically, we thought more parents needed to be taught how to teach their kids right from worng.  The group felt that is a problem all over the country, rich and poor, urban, suburban, and rural.  Someone else suggested more birth control education in middle school would have also helped Wes 2.
    • Others mentioned having more inter-generational time for kids.  Not just having this contact with families though.  We talked about allowing youth to go to nursing homes and allowing seniors who are unrelated to the children, going into the schools to share their life experiences.
    • Make life on the street less appealing by giving these kids the chance to experience something else.  For example, go to the corner, throw the kids in a bus and take them to a museum.  They have no idea what else is out there.  Maybe if they had more experiences they would chose a different path.
    • Keep them busy.  More after school programs no matter who is running them.  This allows the kids to both stay busy and try new things.
Readalikes:  The best readalike for this book is David Simon's The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood for which a HBO mini series was made.  It also became the basis for the critically acclaimed HBO series, The Wire.  Each of these read and watch alikes are deeply rooted in serious journalism and follow the real people of Baltimore, from the dug dealers, to the kids working the corners and from  the mayor to the kids who make it out and go to college.  Everything Wes Moore relates from his and the incarcerated Moore's life is corroborated here.  Simon was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun for many years, while Wes Moore, although he did an admirable job, is not a professional writer.  So if you want more detail, on Baltimore, Simons is the author for you.

For those who want a deeper look into inner-city poverty during the era when the Moore boys grew up, the best book out there is still There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America by Alex Kotlowitz.

For readers who were interested in the inspirational story of the writer Wes Moore, I would suggest the novels of Paulo Coelho, specifically The Alchemist.  Also, Best Inspiration is a great website of all things inspirational (not just religious).  On the main page, in the left gutter, they have a list of inspirational authors.  Try one.  Or read the book that inspired Wes to make changes in his life, My American Journey: An Autobiography by Colin Powell.

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