Last week I stopped at the gas station on the corner of North and Madison just a couple blocks from my house. As I put my wallet in my coat and begin fueling I was hallooed by a tall light-skinned young gentleman with a genial air. It took me a moment to recognize The Gardener who was a student at Booker T. the year I did my student teaching. He was in the Language Arts class I co-taught with my mentor Luky. I’d seen him a couple times in the five years since he was my student-he sometimes walks past as I’m setting on the stoop on his way from Mondawmin Mall back to the projects. I recall him being the smart, sane, respectful, and often productive kid in a Wild West classroom. And if you think a Wild West classroom would be a site to behold I can only tell you that the halls at the Book were much worse, like San Pedro Sula bad, or Beirut in the early 80’s bad.
I didn’t recognize The Gardner because he cut his long blond/reddish dreads off. He was an uncannily attractive kid–like an Elf, with his vanilla skin tinged with the barest trace of mocha, his aqualine nose and narrow, chiseled Roman features extremely rare in West Baltimore. He’d softened a bit in the face and his great golden mane was gone, but he still had an incredible smile and sparkling hazel eyes, and he was as soft-spoken, congenial, and respectful as ever.
I will pause for a brief aside here: there is no better feeling as a teacher than to run into a former student who is genuinely warm and happy to see you. That is the case even if you see that student slinging at the projects just south of North on Eutaw.
“What you are up to?” I asked after the obligatory slanted handshake/man hug/back slap.
“Workin’, makin’ that money,” he said and smiled.
Though I knew, I asked anyhow. “Where you working?”
“Here, man, on the block. Shit you know.” He laughed. “I fucked up in 6th and 7th grade and I couldn’t apply to the good high schools. I went to Douglass and oh my God there was not much schoolin’ goin’ on up there! I got my GED though and it’s all good.”
Had The Gardner gone to a reasonably sane middle school he’d have had a chance to do whatever he wanted. Thinking of him asking questions and completing his worksheets in that ridiculous Warner Bros cartoon environment 5 years ago, thinking of how eager he was to succeed, and then seeing where he ended up after all his effort makes me want to puke.
So that brings me to The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, which tells the improbable story of two West Baltimore kids with two completely different destinies: one ends up in prison for life, the other a Rhodes Scholar. They both happen to share a name, which is the least significant thing they share, but at the same time a fact which draws one into the story because of the improbability of such a thing.
The luckier Wes More had just a bit more support and stability at just the right moments. The other Wes More’s support systems failed at crucial points in his journey. One escaped the ‘hood, the other didn’t–not because of a lack of intelligence or a lack of skill, but because of failures in his family and community which left him few options.
Wes More the scholar seeks out the other Wes More and engages him in several conversations which appear throughout the book. He also found and interviewed many of the important people in the other Wes More’s life, creating a biography to accompany his own autobiography point by point. It’s a good, quick read. And terribly sad.
I also greatly enjoyed Forge (Seeds of America). This is the first of Ms. Anderson’s novels for me, and I didn’t think of it as a young adult novel while reading it. Forge buzzes along on the strength of its fine central consciousness, its strong and enjoyable characters, and its action sequences. I could definitely use this in small reading groups, or as part of an academic Expedition around revolutionary-era America. Good stuff. I will eagerly look forward to reading more of Ms. Anderson’s series!