By Madelynn Coldiron
With soft-spoken intensity, Wes Moore used the story of his life to encourage and inspire Kentucky school board members to fight for all children.
Moore, a former Army officer, White House Fellow and Rhodes Scholar, compared his life with the life of a convicted murderer with the same name in his book, The Other Wes Moore. The word “other” in the title is significant, he said.
“The fact that our society is full of ‘others’ – people who might not look like us, might not speak like us, might live in the other part of town from us, but whose destiny matters as much in the long-term safety and security and greatness of our communities as ours does …
“That’s what you are fighting for,” he told the crowd of board members, superintendents and others. “You can’t cherry pick. You can’t decide who you’re going to advocate for and who you’re not going to advocate for. You can’t decide who you’re going to protect and who you’re not going to protect: You protect them all. And that’s why your work matters.”
Moore, the conference plenary speaker, related the story of his childhood in Baltimore and New York City and how he was headed for trouble until his strong-willed mother shipped him off to a military school in Pennsylvania. He eventually adjusted to the school and turned his life around. Later, a Baltimore Sun article about his winning a Rhodes Scholarship was published at the same time as a story about a man from his hometown about his age who shared his name – but not his future. That man was serving a life sentence for murdering an off-duty police officer in a robbery.
“And the more I learned about him, the more I realized how much more we had in common than just our names.” Moore eventually began a correspondence with him, exploring the question of why the other man’s “fate was sealed” long before the murder “and what can we do to keep similar tragedies from continuing to happen.”
But there is no single factor in determining which way a child will go, he said.
“I’m a firm believer that potential in this country is universal. Opportunity is not. And the difference between potential and where we can all end up is where we all come in,” Moore said. “I realized that the things that helped me was not being physically transported; moving from Baltimore to the Bronx to Valley Forge didn’t change my way of thinking. What changed was I found myself surrounded by people, starting with my mom and my grandparents … and role models and teachers and board members and advocates – people who helped me understand that the world is much bigger than what was directly in front of me.”
Another factor that plays into a child’s success is education – and not just the knowledge learned but the networking connections that are made through higher education, Moore said. Expectations also matter, he added. He said he had always thought that people are the products of their environment but he learned from the “other” Wes Moore that we are products of our expectations – that we internalize the expectations that others have of us.
“Your work matters,” he told board members, “because every single day you fight and advocate for people who are straddling that line of greatness, and the problem is they don’t even know it. How we assist, how we push, how we nurture, how we create environments for them – it matters.”