This past Wednesday, Wes Moore spoke to the University of Delaware community at the invitation of the UD Honors Program. The 34-year-old man graduated from Valley Forge Military College, Johns Hopkins University, and Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He served with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, worked with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a White House Fellow, and authored the New York Times bestseller The Other Wes Moore. If I had heard just this litany of achievements, I would probably assume that Wes’s intellect and ambition had been apparent and nurtured from birth by a financially comfortable family.
But I would be wrong. The reality is that Wes spent much of his childhood in poverty on the tough streets of inner-city Baltimore and the Bronx, skipping school and being surrounded by the illegal drug trade. He was arrested even before he became a teenager. Wes did attend the top-notch Riverdale Country School, but had to carefully manage his identity during those few years, as his attendance at Riverdale made him the neighborhood social pariah while his wealthy classmates shunned him for his poverty.
Somewhere along the way, Wes turned his life around. But another Wes Moore was raised just a few blocks away in Baltimore, one that will spend the rest of his life in prison for his role in a jewelry store robbery that killed a police officer. The Other Wes Moore is the mesmerizing story of these two men.
Wes managed to impress me even more in person as he spoke of the value of personal responsibility and community service. Scribbling notes, I realized that he is incredibly quotable, but I think the best line of the night actually came from the Wes who is a convicted murderer: “I think we’re products of our expectations”, not our environments.
That comment really resonated with Wes, who described his shock at the articulateness of the convict’s first letter to him. Even he had low expectations of Wes. As I mentioned earlier, just by looking at his early environment, most people probably wouldn’t predict that the author would achieve so much. But aren’t we all supposed to have faith in the American Dream, that anyone, no matter where they come from, can rise to success? I thought I believed, until Wes made me realize the power of expectations.
There is no doubt that there are enormous structural problems in Baltimore, and all American inner cities. While unfortunately on an individual level it is unlikely any one person will cure poverty and the subsequent issues of pervasive violence, inferior schools, and high teen pregnancy rates, we can change our expectations of those born into such unlucky situations. Wes Moore proves that difficult circumstances need not dictate outcomes. I could not agree more with his statement, “Potential in this country is universal, but opportunity is not.” It is not enough to be grateful that our parents and teachers believed in us. When we recognize that individual and societal expectations can hold people back just as easily as they can push others forward, we learn that a key component of community service is instilling high hopes for those whom not much is expected of.