Moore describes graduation day at Northern High School and points out that Maryland has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country: 76%. Yet while Baltimore County’s graduation rate is 85%, in Baltimore City—where Northern High School is located—it is only 38%. Woody has just managed to scrape through to graduation along with 86 of his classmates. He dances joyously as he approaches the stage, before stopping to think of all his friends who haven’t made it to this point, including White Boy and Wes, who dropped out two years ago. After being arrested for shooting Ray, Wes was lucky; Ray sustained only a minor injury and Wes was tried in a juvenile court, and thus was given only six months in a juvenile detention facility. After serving his time, Wes re-enrolled in high school, but by this point he had missed so much that his teachers gave up on trying to catch him up. After Wes’ child is born, he drops out for good.
By this point, we know that Wes has made some seriously bad decisions. However, by mentioning the graduation rates of Baltimore City versus Baltimore County and the overall state of Maryland, Moore reminds us that the odds have been stacked against Wes because of his race, his socioeconomic status, and where he was born. While Woody has managed to make it to graduation, most of his friends have not. Perhaps the greatest tragedy about Wes’s story is not the story itself, but the fact that, in inner-city Baltimore, dropping out of school, teenage fatherhood, and arrest are not the exception, but the norm.
However, the combination of his criminal record and lack of high school diploma make it almost impossible for Wes to get a job. Alicia and the baby live with Alicia’s mother, while Wes lives with his Aunt Nicey, from whom he hides the fact that he is dealing drugs again. Wes runs his operation “with the precision of a military unit.” His crew is made up of runners, hitters, housemen, and muscle, all of whom play a different role while working together as a harmonious group, almost like a large family. Wes runs the operation very effectively, and at one point is bringing in 4000 dollars a day. Over 1 in 7 residents of Baltimore are addicts, and thus there is an enormous amount of money to be made. However, Wes feels guilty about the size of his cut compared to the lower-ranking members of his crew who put themselves at greater risk. He knows that this is just how the game works, but it still troubles him.
It is easy to blame Wes for getting back into the drug game so soon after he is released from prison. Theoretically, he was lucky to get a light sentence and be given a second chance—how can he be so quick to throw that chance away? However, as Moore points out, in reality Wes has little choice. His chances of getting a legal job are almost nonexistent, and he now must provide for his family. Furthermore, the comparison of the drug crew to a family highlights why staying in the game is appealing. As a dealer, Wes gets to use his skills, earn money, and feel a sense of belonging to a community—things it would be all but impossible to find elsewhere.
One day, Wes is standing on a corner with his crew. A stranger approaches and asks the guys if they know where he can “buy some rocks.” There are multiple indications that the man is an undercover cop, so Wes says he doesn’t know. Wes starts walking away, but although he knows it isn’t wise, he also doesn’t want this potential sale to go to waste. He turns back to the man and points him toward a nearby phone booth, saying someone there will give him the drugs. Wes accepts $20 from the man, and as he does so notices the man’s hands are smooth and clean—another suspicion sign. Quickly, Wes starts walking away; yet almost immediately, he hears a shout to put his hands up. Within seconds, Wes is surrounded by ten officers and arrested.
Wes’s catastrophic mistake in this passage shows that his strength as a drug dealer is also his weakness. Earlier in the chapter, Moore describes Wes’s talent at running his operation effectively, which allows him to bring in a large income. However, this desire for money ends up being a fatal flaw, through which—like a hero from classical tragedy—Wes is led to his downfall. Wes’s arrest also reveals how luck and choice often work in tandem; while it was misfortune that led the undercover cop to target him, Wes’s actions are also to blame.
Back in military school, Moore is now leading his own platoon, who address him with “a coordinated ‘Yes Sergeant.’” He has now been at Valley Forge for three years, and Joy has noticed that he is more polite, has better posture, and carries himself with a general sense of dignity and honor. Moore has internalized the moral code of military school, and—thanks to the support of Captain Hill and others—now even enjoys his time there. He has received both academic and athletic scholarships, significantly reducing the financial burden on his mother. Moore goes to the mailroom and finds that he has two letters from colleges and one from Justin. Moore is the only sophomore on the starting squad of the Valley Forge basketball team, and colleges have already started courting him.
The young man described in this passage is almost unrecognizable. In only three years, Moore has gone from aimless and self-destructive to hard-working, purposeful, and distinguished. However, because he does not describe the intervening years in much detail, it is hard to know how exactly this change took place. Moore mentions that he enjoys the moral message and sense of belonging he receives at military school, although it is hard to reconcile this with his initial reaction to Valley Forge. Was it luck that led to Moore’s change of heart, or did he deliberately work on shifting his opinion?
During the summers, Moore attends “prestigious” basketball camps and daydreams about the day he is drafted into the NBA. One day, Moore is shooting hoops in the Bronx with his Uncle Howard and tells him about the letters he’s been receiving from colleges. Howard says that he hopes Moore makes it to the league, but that he should remember that the odds are against him and that he should not rest all his ambitions on the NBA. Moore is startled by this “dose of reality,” but remembers his uncle’s words as he receives more letters from colleges.
This conversation is a reminder that, while it is vitally important that young people are supported in their hopes and ambitions, it is perhaps equally important that they are given advice on the realistic chances and limits of those dreams. Moore’s dreams of going to the NBA recall Wes’s hope of growing up to be a pro football player and rapper; ultimately, both are rather unrealistic.
Moore opens the letter from Justin. They have remained close friends in spite of a dean at Riverdale who, when the boys were 12, warned Justin to stay away from Moore. In the letter, Justin informs Moore that Shea has been arrested for possession with the intent to distribute, a charge that could put him away for life. Meanwhile, Justin’s mother is dying from a rare form of cancer, and Justin has been using all his free time to take care of her—a fact that has had a negative impact on his grades. Moore is upset by the news, and starts imagining what his life would be like if he weren’t at Valley Forge. Although he likes life at the academy, he still feels conflicted about being there. He misses home and feels that he is in a “bubble,” kept at a distance from the real world.
Justin’s story is an example of the tragic impact that misfortune can have even on the lives of those who work hard, play by the rules, and never make mistakes. Although Moore does not say so explicitly, his mixed feelings about Valley Forge arguably seem to be inspired by a sense of guilt over the different directions in which his and Justin’s lives have moved. Where Justin was a perfect student, Moore was selfish and irresponsible; yet it is Moore who now seems destined for success, while Justin is left floundering.
Moore is occupied by overseeing his platoon from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep. He is charged with taking care of his class, making sure they are performing well academically as well as meticulously following the many rules of Valley Forge. One Saturday evening, the sergeant in charge of the other platoon in Moore’s company, Dalio, asks Moore if he wants to get a Stromboli (a folded pizza popular in Pennsylvania). While strolling through town, the boys are addressed by a teenager in a car with “unkempt black hair and a distinctive scar.” The teenager asks them what they are doing and demands that they call him sir, before telling them that he is Colonel Bose’s son. Moore and Dalio treat the boy with polite (if confused) courtesy, and he drives away. Moments later, however, the car speeds back and swerves dangerously close to the boys. Dalio is scared, but “the kid from the Bronx” inside Moore leads him to confidently tell Dalio that they should just keep heading to the pizza store.
While it may not be obvious straight away, the actions of Colonel Bose’s son are reminiscent of the kind of racist intimidation that was common in the South during the Jim Crow era. Rather than exploiting the legal discrimination that left black people unable to testify against white people, Colonel Bose’s son takes advantage of Moore and Dalio’s cadet training, which encourages them to be respectful and obedient to anyone who presents themselves as their superior. The problem with this training, of course, is that it can be abused by those who wish to use authority in order to intimidate and mistreat others.
Moore and Dalio keep walking, but soon hear a voice shouting, “Go home, nigger!”. Moore then feels something hard slam against his mouth, cutting his tooth. They hear laughter as the car drives away. Moore is overcome with rage and embarrassment, and the lessons of his childhood in the Bronx are telling him to retaliate. At the same time, he is realistic about the threat facing him and imagines the impact on his family if he were to get killed. Moore leads Dalio back to campus through the wooded area where Moore’d been tricked during his early attempts to escape from Valley Forge. Despite his hurt and anger, Moore smiles at the way his feelings about military school have changed—where he was once desperate to flee, he now runs willingly back toward it.
There is a clear parallel between this scene and the two fight scenes in which Wes pulls a weapon and ends up arrested. Whereas Wes is not able to control his temper and fixation with “sending a message,” Moore takes a more pragmatic, selfless approach. He envisions the possible outcomes of retaliation in his mind, and considers the impact of those outcomes not only on himself, but on his family. This kind of thinking is a sign of maturity; at the same time, it relies on support systems that have never been available to Wes.