by Mel Allen, Deval Mehta and Ben Falandays
Wes Moore begins his story reflecting on the reality that sudden moments of decision have great potential to seal our fate. From a young age, we are influenced by those who raise us, our peers at school, and the resources that our communities are able to provide. These influences help to shape our most basic values and morals, and impact these major decisions and choices that we will make throughout our lives.
Wes explains that the intention of this book is reflect on choices and accountability at both the individual level and the societal level. We all play a role in society and “little separates each of us from another life altogether”, in terms of certain decisions which determine where we end up, as well as little also separates us from our peers that go down different paths. For me, this was a key take away from this book, and I was encouraged to reflect on family and friends from my neighborhood and the similar parallels (and unfortunately, outcomes) that exist between them and the Wes in prison.
One of the key differences between the Wes’s was the impact that positive role models and mentors had, and this was not limited to only family members. We all should accept a certain level of responsibility and accountability, and work together to provide positive, uplifting avenues for those that may not have access to these. Until we eliminate the distance and judgments that we often build between others, gain a sense of empathy, and recognize that “even the worst decisions we make don’t necessarily remove us from the circle of humanity,” the story of the Wes Moore serving a life sentence will continue to persist.
A friend that I met this past Winter Session in Ghana told me that “the greatest accomplishment in life is not achieved by one person, but by supporters of loving people.” This cooperative attitude is something that we can all easily adopt and can certainly go a long way, noted by the success of the author, Wes Moore. For me, this book was a call to leadership and service; although the fate of both Wes Moore’s was based on a series of personal choices, in turn we have to not only recognize and celebrate the role that strong mentors can play in shaping these decisions and choices, but also identify how we can serve as these for family, peers and community members.
Mel Allen is a Writing Fellow for the Honors Program.
Hey Readers! My name is Deval Mehta. I’m a Physics major with a minor in Mathematics and a Freshman Fellow here at the Honors Program. As a Freshman Fellow, my responsibilities include helping the Russell Fellows plan events for the freshmen honors community in the Russell Complex, acting as a liaison between the Honors Program and my floor, and of course, being involved in Honors Program events and initiatives. Community service plays a large role in my life, because it has been drilled into me since I could understand human speech. For as long as I can remember, my parents have volunteered their time at the Vaishnav Temple of New York (VTNY), my house of worship. When I turned five, I followed in their footsteps and began volunteering my time at VTNY as well. In high school, I worked with other organizations as well, mainly UNICEF, and never lost my love of community service. Now, I’m working with the Honors Program to undertake a few more community service initiatives.
For many students, the end of the fall semester meant a chance to unwind, see high school friends, and reacquaint themselves with their long lost love named sleep, but at the Honors Program, we’ve had serving the community on our minds. Over Winter Break/Session, the Honors Program recommended that students read a book entitled The Other Wes Moore. Unlike the Summer Reader required by the University for all freshmen, The Other Wes Moore is not only meant to ring up conversation among its readers on campus, but to engage their minds in thinking about the everyday occurrences of the less fortunate. To follow up a great Winter Reader, the Honors Program has decided to hold a Day of Service to give our students the opportunity to help the community is life-changing ways.
In the spirit of community service and in awe of Wes Moore’s story, the Honors Program will be working with Head Start Inc. Head Start Inc. helps children between the ages of three and five and their parents, who come from low-income families, prepare for school both socially and cognitively through services oriented towards education, health, nutrition, and social behavior. Significant emphasis is placed on the parents’ involvement in the education of their children and on helping the parents help their children achieve their literacy, education, and employment goals. Head Start Inc. has centers around the country, but here in Delaware (particularly in Wilmington), Head Start is located in the West End Head Start Center, funded by the West End Neighborhood House, another one of our Service Day partners.
On March 9, 2013, the Honors Program is sponsoring Day of Service for students to out and change the community. One of the four projects on this Day of Service entails redecorating classrooms for the children in the West End Head Start Center. Our goal is to provide these children between the ages of three and five and their parents the best environment in which they can begin to achieve a similar level of education and knowledge to what we know today, in other words, we want to give them a head start in life, one that they might not have without help. By redecorating these classrooms, we’ll create a brighter atmosphere for these children and families, and as an effect, a brighter outlook on their futures.
Our lives are not our own. I’m sorry, Donald Trump, you did not claw your way to the top based on sheer willpower alone. Nor savvy people skills. Not even maverick business moves. So then to what forces can we attribute the rise of an International Dynasty? I don’t know. No one knows. To pin down one factor is already to miss the point. Luck, divine intervention, maybe Mercury was aligned just so when Papa Trump saw Mom across a crowded bowling alley – the best we can say is that “the universe was on his side” (except for the whole hair situation). All we know is that a whole lot of things converged to make Trump what he is.
This is equally true for everyone. The cult of the individual, a definitively American phenomenon, would like to tell you otherwise – that you are the “captain of your fate,” that every little boy or girl can be President with only a heart of gold and a little elbow grease. But we are a long way from the “rags to riches” dime novels of a bygone era. Are dimes even still considered currency? With skyrocketing economic disparity, de facto segregation, and a drastically increasing correlation between parent-child class level, this is a receding hope. Some 40 years ago, an American child could reasonably expect to earn more than their parents, to make a better life for their children. This is not necessarily the case today.
This is not to say that individual quality and talent are non-factors. Of course they are. Donald Trump does have determination, people skills, and exceptional business know-how that helped him legitimately earn what he has. But the real question is, where did those things come from in the first place? He didn’t simply sprout from the ground like that, he was raised. By a specific family (the Trump’s), among a specific group of friends (assuming he has those), in a specific neighborhood (Queens), in a state (New York), one of 50 in America – and only this exact combination of factors makes ‘Trump’ a reality.
What I’m trying to say is that what we like to call a “person” is really nothing less than a bio-psycho-social system on a huge scale. We are products of an individual life, of a culture, and of a history – a very long history. The story of who you are starts at the big-bang.
So great, then our fates are determined? Are there just too many factors to reasonably control our lives? Well, yes and no. Chance will always be relevant. But the ‘American dream,’ has never been that we would all be filthy rich, only that we each have a chance to move up in life. For most of you reading this, you have known for a long time that you would go to college. You had at least some control over how your life would turn out. And now you have even more control. You have the opportunity to envision a future life and work towards making it reality.
But what if you couldn’t envision this path? What if it seemed that despite your greatest efforts, you had no control of where you would end up? Why, then, would you be motivated to work at all?
Let’s call it the “hope factor.” It keeps people going in the direst of situations. The lack of this is nothing less than resignation, despair, and disconnection with responsibility. And it’s a big part of what drives the lives that we see play out in The Other Wes Moore.
In the book, we see Tony Moore trying desperately to shift the course of his brother’s fate. He feels that “his brother’s life could be saved,” explains Moore, “even if he felt that his own had already, at age fourteen, passed the point of no return” (27). Yet, by the age of 18, one Wes was a high school dropout, a drug dealer, a parent, and a convicted felon; the other was a platoon sergeant. One Wes saw chances to take command of his life folding out before his very eyes; the other saw his future for the first time only upon the passage of his life-sentence.
When it comes to changing people’s lives for the better, no, we cannot come up with a formula to make everyone a Trump. Some will be born to millionaires – they will inevitably be millionaires themselves. Most of us won’t have this opportunity. But, if at least we feel that we have a chance to build, we will surely build. If, on the other hand, we feel at age 14 that our fates are sealed, we will leave them sealed.
For many Americans, their futures are not transparent. They have no guarantee that if they work hard, if they go to school, if they are honest people, they will have good results. They witness many around them do just those things, and they witness these investments take them no further towards security or stability. This is a situation which makes young children truly ‘lost causes.’ For some classrooms, we mean it when we tell the children that they can become President one day. For others, this is simply a lie.
But it shouldn’t be a lie. It hasn’t always been a lie (As Wes Moore points to in the case of Bill Clinton), and it doesn’t need to remain one. So when I think about how to repair a broken system, I first point to the ‘hope factor.’ Personal responsibility is important, but a culture without hope makes it a moot point. We have a generation of kids deprived access to their future. The first step to changing the cycle is clear: we need give back an American dream.
The case of the Wes Moore’s shows us that we are “products of our expectations.” Not simply our own, nor others’, but “others’ expectations that you take as your own” (126). What expectations do you have for yourself? What expectations do you have for others? What about for the children of Wes’s Baltimore and all the cities like it around the globe?