It is 5.30 am, and Moore is awoken by a chorus of loud shouts telling him to get out of his “racks.” His roommate urges him to get up and is “dumbfounded” by Moore’s protests that he’ll wait until 8. As his roommate leaves, Moore is left in a state of disbelief about the situation he’s found himself in. First Sergeant Anderson enters the room and begins screaming and cursing at Moore in decidedly unfamiliar language. Anderson then flashes a “devilish smile” before leaving. Moore explains that this is his first morning at military school, which Joy has sent him to after he was put on academic and disciplinary probation at Riverdale. On the same day as he receives the news of probation, Moore is sitting next to Shani at home, punching her arm out of boredom. At one point, he misses and splits her lip open. Furious, Joy slaps him across the face, and for a moment it seems as if Moore might hit her back. Joy breaks down in tears, fearful that she is “losing” her son.
Being sent to military school at first seems somewhat drastic, but in this passage Moore makes it clear that his mother had already given him a long series of second chances. After watching her son skip school, fail his classes, run into trouble with the law, and hit his sister, Joy is forced to acknowledge that her plan to send him to Riverdale in order to give him a positive start in life is not working out. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this turn of events is Joy’s sadness over the fact that she has not been able to ensure that her son stays on the right path, a sadness reminiscent of Mary’s despair on discovering Wes’s drug stash.
Moore is unafraid of Sergeant Anderson; compared to the Bronx, military school does not seem particularly intimidating. However, suddenly Moore’s entire chain of command bursts into his room and flips Moore out of his top bunk onto the floor. The school Moore attends is named Valley Forge Military Academy; it is in Pennsylvania, and its pristine campus reminds Moore of “a more austere version of Riverdale.” Life at the institution is strict and exhausting, requiring a formidable level of discipline. The new arrivals (“plebes”) are treated as “less than nothing,” and their first names and life histories are never mentioned. In his first days at the school, Moore is filled with rage at Joy for sending him there, and tries to run away four times in as many days. Moore’s roommate is from Brooklyn, and it was his grandmother who first told Joy about Valley Forge—a fact that leads Moore to deeply resent him.
At Valley Forge, the need to make decisions—as well as the ability to do so—is stripped away entirely. Moore no longer has control over his actions, but must simply follow a strict set of rules that encompass everything from when he goes to sleep to how he walks to how quickly he eats. This disciplinary regime is undoubtedly oppressive, and it is little wonder that Moore attempts to escape it. At the same time, Valley Forge gives Moore something that has been lacking in his life thus far: structure. Instead of having to constantly decide between making responsible or irresponsible choices, Moore simply has to obey the rules.
After four days, Sergeant Austin enters Moore’s room and says it’s clear that Moore doesn’t want to be at Valley Forge, adding “we don’t want you here.” He gives Moore a map of the local area, including instructions on how to get to the train station. Overwhelmed with joy, Moore thanks Sergeant Austin and feels a sudden surge of respect for him. That night, Moore packs his things and creeps out of his room. He follows the map closely, but soon finds himself in a completely dark and unfamiliar wooded area. Frightened and confused, Moore beings to cry. At that moment, Moore notices that his whole chain of command is there laughing at him, including Sergeant Austin. The map he had been given was completely fake. The older boys take Moore to the office of Colonel Battagliogli, a distinguished and enthusiastic retired Army officer in charge of the plebes.
Moore’s many attempts to run away, his naïve belief that Sergeant Austin is genuinely trying to help him, and his eventual collapse into tears in the woods all serve as reminders of how young he is. At Valley Forge, he has been placed in a strict, strenuous environment completely devoid of emotional support, and—like any young person—Moore is overwhelmed by homesickness. Furthermore, at this point Moore still feels completely alien and excluded from the community at Valley Forge. While the harsh initiation tactics he undergoes aim to ultimately create a sense of belonging, it is difficult for Moore to see that now.
Colonel Battagliogli tells Moore that he will allow him to speak on the phone for five minutes. Moore looks around at the members of his chain of command and notices a stranger, a black man who seems to be a teenager even though he has “an old soul and frighteningly serious demeanor.” Moore calls his mother and immediately begins to apologize for his past behavior and beg to be let home. Before he can finish, Joy cuts him off and tells him that he is not going anywhere; his family are proud of him and have already sacrificed too much for him to be there. At the time Moore doesn’t understand his mother’s words, but years later he learns that Valley Forge is even more expensive than Riverdale, and that his mother was forced to write to family and friends for help in paying the fees. Eventually, Moore’s grandparents decided to use their retirement savings (which they had been hoping to use to move back to Jamaica) in order to pay for Moore’s first year at Valley Forge.
Moore’s conversation with his mother puts his decision of whether or not to stay at Valley Forge in a different light. Up until this point, Moore has been considering his experience at military school from a decidedly self-centered perspective. Although he promises Joy that he will behave better when he comes home, Moore’s desire to leave is entirely motivated by how much he hates military school, not because he’s actually undergone any kind of transformation. Moore’s brief conversation with his mother reminds him that it is more than just his own personal experience at stake. His entire community has made sacrifices in order to support him in making a change.
Joy repeats that she loves Moore and is proud of him and that “it’s time to stop running.” The next day, Moore notices the black man again standing next to Colonel Battagliogli and sees that he is a member of F Company, the most distinguished and disciplined company. His name is Cadet Captain Ty Hill, and Moore is impressed by how he demands “real respect” from those around him. It is a different kind of respect than that inspired by Shea and other drug dealers, which more closely resembles intimidation. Moore later learns that the previous night, Joy had asked Captain Hill to “keep an eye out” for her son. Sure enough, Colonel Battagliogli soon tells Moore that Captain Hill wishes to speak with him.
This passage describes the beginning of Moore’s shifting opinion about military school. It begins with Joy’s confirmation that he has no choice but to stay at Valley Forge, making Moore aware that he must accept his fate. Another turning point emerges as a result of Moore meeting Captain Hill. While Moore still feels alienated by the Valley Forge community at large, he develops an admiration for Captain Hill, a young African-American man who has excelled to the highest level of achievement.
Back in Maryland, Wes has slowly grown used to his new suburban neighborhood, although he still misses the “speed” and “intensity” of the city. On the school bus, Wes and his godbrother, Red, notice two girls and decide to approach them. Wes is popular with girls, and he has “a dozen girlfriends,” although these relationships all remain casual. One of the girls on the bus is called Alicia, and she and Wes quickly become close. Two months later, she discovers that she is pregnant. Wes is so shocked that he enters a state of denial. Eventually, he tells Tony, who has just become a father himself. Tony bursts out laughing, pointing out that Mary has recently had a baby too and that “this is some sitcom shit.” Teenage pregnancies are common in Baltimore, yet Wes still feels despondent about the prospect of becoming a dad. He senses that he has suddenly reached “a point of no return.”
While Wes has had to grow up quickly as a result of his involvement in the drug game, he is still very much a teenager—emphasized by the fact that he and Alicia met on a school bus. The “point of no return” Wes describes thus arguably refers to the definitive end of his childhood. Where other young people grow out of their youth more gradually, Wes is forced to become an adult virtually overnight. However, his maturity—including his ability to make responsible decisions—cannot accelerate at the same drastic rate as the responsibilities placed upon him. From this perspective, it is not surprising that Wes feels panicked.
At Wes and Tony’s little brother’s first birthday, Tony indirectly reveals that Alicia is pregnant. On learning this news, Mary takes a deep breath before offering everyone cake. Meanwhile, Wes’s approaching fatherhood fails to stop him from seeing other girls. Alicia remains hopeful that she can raise the baby in the stable, two-parent household that she and Wes didn’t have. Yet the fact that Wes grew up without a father means he is uncertain and ambivalent about his role in his child’s life. The last time Wes saw his father, Bernard asked Wes, “Who are you?”. Wes simply smirked and left without responding.
There is an obvious difference in Wes and Alicia’s reactions to their approaching parenthood, a difference that reveals much about gender, teenage pregnancy, and inequality. While Wes effectively buries his head in the sand about the pregnancy, this option is not available to Alicia. Immediately, Alicia develops an adult sense of responsibility. Wes, meanwhile, seems more on track to become like his own father.
One day, Wes’s new girlfriend sleeps in late at his place and wakes up in a panic. The two creep down to the front door only to find an angry older teenager named Ray waiting out on the street. Ray first yells at the girl (his girlfriend) before coming for Wes, beating him ruthlessly. Wes manages to run inside the house and quickly retrieves a gun. The girl attempts to stop him, but Wes charges outside, signaling for his partners in the drug crew to join him. The crew chase and shoot at Ray, who eventually lets out a scream before falling behind a car. Back outside Wes’s house, the girl is hysterical and threatens to call the police, but Wes feels no regret. Inside, Mary asks her son what has happened, but Wes simply shuts himself in the bathroom and starts washing away the blood. Mary calls Tony, who immediately drives over. Wes throws his bloodied clothes in the garbage and sinks his gun into the family’s fish tank.
What is perhaps most startling about this scene is the way it mirrors the episode described earlier in the novel in which Wes pulls out a knife during a boyhood scuffle. In both cases, a minor dispute rapidly escalates into a violent fight due to Wes’s anger and desire to “send a message.” Neither Ray nor the neighborhood boy do anything to particularly offend Wes (indeed, in Ray’s case it seems to have been Wes himself who was in the wrong), yet Wes’s reaction is deadly. As Moore shows throughout the book, Wes is not an evil or even particularly violent person; however, he has a dangerous fixation with inspiring fear in those who cross him.
The police arrive at Wes’s house and immediately arrest him while Mary shouts at him through tears. Mary asks him if he shot Ray, but Wes does not reply. Just as the police car pulls away, Wes tries to shout out to his mother that he doesn’t know the answer to her question. By the time Tony arrives, Mary informs him that it’s too late—Wes is gone.
Mary’s statement that Wes is “gone” is true on a metaphorical level as well as a literal one. Wes’s involvement in the drug game, his approaching fatherhood, and his arrest for shooting Ray all confirm that his family have lost him in an irrevocable way.