Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- It is a rare and frightening gift for someone to glimpse an alternate fate in another life.

On the same day that Wes Moore was reading an article in The Baltimore Sun about his own receipt of a Rhodes scholarship, he also read an article about an unrelated Wes Moore arrested for murder. Both Wes Moores shared Baltimore roots and similar stories of poverty and father absence. One graduated from college and became a White House Fellow; the other will spend the rest of his life at the Jessup Correctional Facility.

Wes Moore contacted his namesake in prison out of what he calls "pure curiosity." The result is a book, "The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates," that illuminates the roles of disadvantage, privilege and personal responsibility in the shaping of a life.

Both Wes Moores emerge as bright, energetic boys facing betrayals they did not deserve and temptations they did not resist. The author Moore vividly describes a circa 1990 urban world flooded by crack, set to a hip-hop soundtrack, and ruled by a violent, lawless conception of male honor. The lure of crime is indistinguishable from the appeal of entrepreneurship; the profits of the drug trade are limited only by the hours a teen is willing to spend on the street. It is a world of public schools that reward disruption with attention, of unrealistic expectations of sports and music stardom, of public housing projects nicknamed "Murder Homes."

Both Wes Moores end up handcuffed in the back of police cars. Both receive second chances. Only one robs a jewelry store and kills an off-duty policeman who had five children.

The author Moore admirably refuses to draw simplistic, self-serving comparisons. He admits a broad role for luck, fate and personality. But the two stories, for all their variations, have a clear theme: the importance of parental influence, and the desperate search for substitutes when that influence is absent.

Both boys had caring, single mothers. But tenacity turns out to be as important as caring. The imprisoned Wes Moore's mother lived in denial about her son's drug dealing. The author's mother had what he calls "Thomas hands" -- "hands that hit so hard you had to be hit only once to know you never wanted to be hit again." For years, she slept on a couch in the living room, standing guard over her children in a troubled neighborhood. She sent her son to a private school she couldn't afford. When he began skipping class and failing, she threatened him with military school. "She had to be bluffing," thought Moore. She wasn't.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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