When it comes to making a mark on the world, who one chooses to fight for matters more than any transcript or diploma, author and Rhodes Scholar Wes Moore advised students and faculty Feb. 19.
Moore’s speech discussed the discoveries that formed his New York Times bestselling book, “The Other Wes Moore,” at this year’s Black History Month assembly.
He focused on how his experiences growing up in Baltimore and the South Bronx and attending military school, taught him about the importance of creating supportive communities for people.
“We’re products of our expectations,” Moore said. “And the scary thing about that and the real thing about that is that people’s expectations that they have of themselves are not born from nowhere. The expectations that people have of themselves come from other people’s expectations of them.”
Moore was raised by a single mother after his father died when he was young. Finding it difficult to raise Moore and his two sisters on her own, Moore’s mother decided to move the family to the South Bronx to live with Moore’s grandparents.
“I found myself getting very lost,” Moore said. “I started choosing which days were worth going to school. And I, frankly, had teachers who didn’t seem to mind because they said class was better when I wasn’t there. I began hurting people who truly loved me so I could impress people who could care less about me.”
After threatening to do so for many years, Moore’s mother eventually sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy. Moore originally hated it and tried to run away five times. Unable to find the train station, the fourth time school administrators provided him with a fake map that landed him lost in the woods. When faculty found him – in tears – they allotted him one phone call to whomever he wanted, which went against the strict no outside contact policy. Moore called his mother and begged her to take him home.
“I started listing off things that she needed to do to make my life easier,” Moore said, “And that’s when she stopped me and said, ‘Too many people have sacrificed in order for you to be there and too many people are rooting for you and you have to understand that this isn’t all about you.’”
Although angry at his mother, Moore eventually began to do better in school.
“For the first time people could ask my mom how Wes was doing and she could say he’s okay and not be lying,” Moore said.
Moore’s family moved back to Baltimore where Moore finished high school and attended community college before entering Johns Hopkins University. Moore received a Rhodes Scholarship in 2000 to attend graduate school at Oxford University. The Baltimore Sun chose to run a story about his receiving the scholarship, while it was also running a series of articles about a group of four burglars who had robbed a jewelry store and killed an off-duty police officer. The four were caught after a 12 day national manhunt.
Coincidentally, one of the four burglars was also named Wes Moore. Moore discovered that this other Wes Moore had grown up in very similar conditions to himself: they both had single mothers and had lived mere blocks away from each other.
While Moore was on his way to study at Oxford, the other Wes Moore was sentenced to life-imprisonment without possibility of parole. Moore decided to write a letter to the imprisoned Moore and was shocked by the response he received.
“The letter I received was one of the most articulate and interesting letters I have ever received in my life. And that only led to more questions,” he said.
The two Moores began to correspond and exchanged dozens of letters. When it came time for Moore to share his book with the imprisoned Moore, he had to send him 15 pages a day as the prison did not allow prisoners to receive bound materials.
“I tried to get a better understanding of where he was and where I was and came to the understanding that what we had here was two kids at similar times in their lives who were searching for something more,” Moore said. ”Both searching for something positive. Both searching for a sense of example. And two kids who were looking hard and one found it and one did not.”
Moore said he discovered that it was not place that changed for him, but rather the people who surrounded him who did.
Moore said that when he discussed the title of the book with his publishers, they rejected his six ideas and, instead, pitched him the title “The Other Wes Moore,” which he initially hated.
“It’s not about you and it’s not about him, the name is completely irrelevant,” Moore said his publisher told him that ultimately what changed his mind about the title. “You could put any name inside that book title because the truth is there are “Wes Moores” that exist in all of our communities and all of our schools and all of our homes. People who are one decision away.”
Moore took questions from the audience, including one from Matt Leichenger ’14 who asked Moore how a more privileged, white, straight male – like himself – could find a good and unique way to stand up for those less privileged without conforming to the conventional methods of typical white, straight males.
“I don’t believe there is a single right answer for service,” Moore responded. “I think one of the traps we set for ourselves as a society is we try to tier what service is important and what service is not. You have to find something that you are genuinely passionate about…. find your thing because if there is one thing we know about service it’s that there are tough days ahead and if you are not doing something that you’re passionate about then tough days will become last days.”
Throughout his speech, Moore reiterated a piece of advice given to him from one of his favorite colonels during his time in military school. With his colonel’s words as guidance, Moore challenged students to – by making their mark on their community and the world – make sure that they gave their life a purpose and that it mattered to the world that they existed.
“When it’s time for you to leave, whether it is time for you to leave this school, whether it is time for you to leave your job, whether it is time for you to leave your community, or whether it’s time for you to leave this planet, make sure that it mattered that you were ever here in the first place,” Moore said echoing the colonel’s words. “None of us are promised anything. None of us are promised more days, more weeks, more years. No one is tapping you on the shoulder and saying, ‘Wes you have 5,624 days left, you can pace yourself.’ Nobody ever will. The only thing I know is that while we are here make it matter that we were here in the first place.”