The central conceit of The Other Wes Moore lies in the question of how two men born into a similar position – and who even share identical names – ended up leading wildly different lives. Is this divergence simply a matter of luck, or because of the choices that each of them made? Moore the author does not give a definitive answer, but rather presents a detailed portrayal of his own life alongside that of the other Wes in order to show how both men’s lives were shaped by both luck and choice.
As he tells his own story, Moore highlights key moments at which he made responsible decisions, which sometimes clash with the choices Wes made. For example, he explains how—after initial resistance—he ended up thriving in military school by embracing the philosophy of discipline and respect. Similarly, there are several moments at which it is clear Wes should have made a different decision; for example, when he pulls a knife on another kid in a neighborhood fight, when he steals his mother’s marijuana, and of course when he participates in the robbery that results in the murder of a policeman and Wes’s life imprisonment.
But, without denying that choices do have consequences, Moore doesn’t simply chalk up good and bad decisions to people’s intrinsic character. Rather, he shows that other factors can impact decisions. For instance, he shows how people’s ability to make good choices develops with age.
When both boys are young, they can be selfish and short-tempered; they tend to disregard the advice of their elders and are disproportionately focused on seeming tough and cool to their peers. As Moore grows older, his values change, and he comes to understand the importance of discipline, education, and compassion. Wes also matures to a degree, growing frustrated with the world of drugs and crime and deciding to get out of “the game.” However, he finds that this all but impossible—there are no longer other options available to him.
For Wes, the choices he made in his past limit the choices he can make in the present. Unable to leave behind a life of crime, he continues along that path until he takes part in the crime that results in the murder of a police officer and his own life imprisonment, which of course even further limits his choices. So even when in prison he makes selfless, responsible choices—dedicating his life to the Islamic faith and religious leadership—it is too late for him to have much impact over his own destiny.
If bad choices lead to more bad choices, though, how did Moore manage to escape the sort of cycle that Wes never could? The book’s answer to that question is luck. Moore was lucky enough to have a mother with the knowledge, ability, and resources to send him to the military school that helped him to change his values. Wes had no such luck. And while one could argue that this too was a matter of choice rather than luck – that Moore’s mother made good choices while Wes’s didn’t – the book makes clear that before Wes was born his mother had dreams of graduating college and admission to Johns Hopkins University, but couldn’t afford to stay in school when her Pell grant was terminated due to government cuts. Wes’s life is thus significantly impacted by an unfortunate circumstance that was out of both his and his mother’s control. Although Moore does not argue that his and Wes’s fates are entirely the product of circumstance, he does emphasize that people have less control over their own lives than we might like to think.
Luck vs. Choice ThemeTracker
Luck vs. Choice Quotes in The Other Wes Moore
The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his. Our stories are obviously specific to our two lives, but I hope they will illuminate the crucial inflection points in every life, the sudden moments of decision where our paths diverge and our fates are sealed. It's unsettling to know how little separates each of us from another life altogether.
Johns Hopkins University was only five miles from where Mary grew up, but it might as well have been a world away. To many in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins was the beautiful campus you could walk past but not through. It played the same role that Columbia University did for the Harlem residents who surrounded it, or the University of Chicago did for the Southside. It was a school largely for people from out of town, preppies who observed the surrounding neighborhood with a voyeuristic curiosity when they weren't hatching myths about it to scare freshmen. This city wasn't their home. But after completing her community college requirements, Mary attempted the short but improbable journey from the neighborhood to the campus. Her heart
jumped when she received her acceptance letter. It was a golden ticket to another world.
The walls and floors were coated with filth and graffiti. Flickering fluorescent tubes (the ones that weren't completely broken) dimly lit the cinder-block hallways. The constantly broken-down elevators forced residents to climb claustrophobic, urine-scented stairways. And the drug game was everywhere, with a gun handle protruding from the top of every tenth teenager's waistline. People who lived in Murphy Homes felt like prisoners, kept in check by roving bands of gun-strapped kids and a nightmare army of drug fiends. This was where Tony chose to spend his days.
'Wes searched around his room for his football jersey. He played defensive end for the Northwood Rams, one of the best rec football teams in the nation. Wes loved football, and his athletic frame made him a natural. Even if he was just going out to play in the streets with Woody and some other friends, he wore that jersey like a badge of honor. The crimson "Northwood" that blazed across his white jersey gave him a sense of pride, a sense of belonging.”
My mother saw Riverdale as a haven, a place where I could escape my neighborhood and open my horizons. But for me, it was where I got lost.
Later in life I learned that the way many governors projected the numbers of beds they'd need for prison facilities was by examining the reading scores of third graders. Elected officials deduced that a strong percentage of kids reading below their grade level by third grade would be needing a secure place to stay when they got older. Considering my performance in the classroom thus far, I was well on my way to needing state-sponsored accommodations.
From everything you told me, both of us did some pretty wrong stuff when we were younger. And both of us had second chances. But if the situation or the context where you make the decisions don't change, then second chances don't mean too much, huh?
Wes, you are not going anywhere until you give this place a try. I am so proud of you, and your father is proud of you, and we just want you to give this a shot. Too many people have sacrificed in order for you to be there.
In Baltimore in 1991, 11.7 percent of girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen had given birth. More than one out of ten. He also didn't feel burdened by the thought that early parenthood would wreck his future plans––because he didn't really have any future plans. And he wasn’t overly stressed about the responsibilities of fatherhood––he didn’t even know what that meant. But in some unspoken way, he did sense that he was crossing a point of no return, that things were about to get complicated in a way he was unequipped to handle.
I had to let this one go. I had to look at the bigger picture. My assailant was unknown, unnamed, and in a car. This was not a fair fight, and the best-case scenario was nowhere near as probable as the worst-case scenario. If I was successful, who knew how the fight would've ended? If I failed, who knew how the fight would've ended? I thought about my mother and how she would feel if this escalated any further. I thought about my father and the name he chose for me.
"I think so, or maybe products of our expectations."
"Others’ expectations of us or our expectations for ourselves?"
"l mean others' expectations that you take on as your own."
I realized then how difficult it is to separate the two. The expectations that others place on us help us form our expectations of ourselves.
"We will do what others expect of us," Wes said. "If they expect us to graduate, we will graduate. If they expect us to get a job, we will get a job. lf they expect us to go to jail, then that’s where we will end up too. At some point you lose control."
As I started to think seriously about how I could become the person I wanted to be, I looked around at some of the people who'd had the biggest impact on my life. Aside from family and friends, the men I most trusted all had something in common: they all wore the uniform of the United States of America.
"Fuck God," he said, drawing in a lungful of smoke. "If He does exist, He sure doesn't spend any time in West Baltimore."