Imagine this: The police are looking to arrest somebody in your Baltimore neighborhood with your name for killing an officer. You're innocent of the crime, but can't shake the fact there's a criminal out there with whom you have so much in common: Same name and neighborhood, similar age, both raised by single mothers. The difference: You left the city for military school, studied abroad, became a Rhodes Scholar and worked at the White House. The other guy stayed home, dropped out of school after 10th grade, sold drugs, robbed a jewelry store, killed an off-duty police officer and is currently serving a life sentence in jail.
How could two people with so much in common turn out in such different ways? What determines the paths we take in life? This question motivated Wes Moore, 33, to write "The Other Wes Moore." In his best-selling memoir, Mr. Moore juxtaposes his rise from poverty with that of the other Wes Moore, whose path led him to jail.
Mr. Moore received such a positive response to the book from teachers and parents that they wanted to share its message with teenagers but felt that the book was too old for them. Mr. Moore explained that he wrote a young adult version of his book, "Discovering Wes Moore," so that teens could "understand the intent of the book but not be intimidated by it."
Mr. Moore appears Thursday, at the Hill House as part of the Black, White & Read All Over series presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. His young adult memoir, "Discovering Wes Moore," was released Tuesday. Mr. Moore explains that his new book is "not a traditional memoir, but more of a social commentary.
"Wes' story could have been mine; the tragedy is that my story could have been his," he writes.
Raised in urban poverty by a single mother, the author started showing the classic signs of a troubled youth: run-ins with police, increased absences and poor grades at school, and friends who worked for drug dealers. As a youth "I didn't think about my future at all. I didn't give it much thought," he said. Whenever anybody asked him what he wanted to do with his life, he'd answer, "I don't know.
"I was fine with that answer," he recalled.
After being placed on probation at school, Mr. Moore's mother took decisive action: She scraped together money to send him to Valley Forge Military Academy. The author writes that "forks in the road can happen so fast for young boys. Within months or even weeks, our journeys can twist and turn." By drastically changing his environment, Mr. Moore's mother hoped to expand her son's outlook on life.
Mr. Moore acknowledges that the military isn't the solution for everybody, but it really turned his life around. "That's something the military did right," he explains. In the military, "you can't hit a target that you can't see. If you don't have focus and vision, you will have a very difficult time getting anywhere."
He took that focus and vision and used it to expand his horizons. After graduating as regimental commander and class president from Valley Forge, Mr. Moore completed a degree in international relations at Johns Hopkins University, studied abroad, and became a Rhodes Scholar. "I started having a bigger vision."
It was while he was studying abroad in South Africa that he first heard about the other Wes Moore. Years later, he still found himself thinking about that young man in jail who had his name, so he finally decided to do something about it: he wrote him a letter. The two Wes Moores started corresponding, and soon Mr. Moore began visiting him in the prison.
In "Discoving Wes Moore," Mr. Moore narrates the story of the other Wes Moore with feeling and detail. "Stories allow you to take a step out of your world for a time and think about life in a way you haven't thought about before," he said.
So far, "The Other Wes Moore" has inspired an outpouring of action from readers. "We have high school and college students reading it; they made it part of their curriculum and are doing service projects around it all around the country," Mr. Moore said. He hopes that "Discovering Wes Moore" will inspire a passion for reading in young adults and will likewise inspire a sense of action on the community level.
It's clear that Mr. Moore has a passion for service, especially mentoring. During an interview, his eloquent, animated voice took on additional feeling when asked about his work as a mentor.
"I'm inspired by the people who are out there every single day fighting and advocating for kids who are not their own," he said. Indeed, Mr. Moore is one such person; he has recently moved his young family back to Baltimore in order to give back to the community from which he came.
"There is no greater legacy we'll be able to leave than genuinely supporting others," he said. "I'm inspired by people every day who help others."
Julie Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh and blogs about children's books and parenting at www.instantlyinterruptible.com.