Best-selling author Wes Moore talked about making good decisions, getting an education, and meeting expectations at Samford University Monday, March 17.
"Education matters, and it is not just about what you're learning, but who you are learning it from and with," said Moore, an Army veteran, Rhodes Scholar, television host and author of The Other Wes Moore.
Education, he said, is about much more than a diploma or a major subject. "It's about answering the question of 'who will you fight for and who will you serve,'" he said.
And as a person moves up in education, connections will change for the good, Moore said, citing data that 70 percent of jobs are gotten because of a call or reference from a friend or mentor.
Moore spoke in Wright Center as the 2014 speaker in the Tom and Marla Corts Distinguished Author Series. Proceeds from the lecture benefit Samford's Orlean Bullard Beeson School of Education.
Moore told the audience of about 500, including some 100 students from area middle and high schools, about the experiences that led to his 2010 book, which contrasts his life with that of a man by the same name.
Moore was a Johns Hopkins University senior and newly named Rhodes Scholar when his hometown newspaper The Baltimore Sun was also writing about another young man named Wes Moore. The latter was convicted for murdering an off-duty police officer during a jewelry store burglary.
"We had more in common than just the same name," said Moore. Both had grown up in single parent homes in the same area of town and had gotten into some troubles as youth, said Moore, who was 11 when he felt handcuffs close on his wrists for the first time. The book chronicles how the two kids with so many similarities made choices that took their lives in vastly different directions.
People like them-"kids who are one decision away from going the wrong way," he said, exist in every community and every home.
After his mother enrolled him in a military school as a teenager, the Samford lecturer went on to earn a master's degree from Oxford University in England, serve as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army, and work as a White House Fellow and special assistant to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"We cannot talk about societal responsibility without also talking about personal responsibility," he said. "However one must remember that individual decisions are made in a societal context."
Moore recalled asking "the other" Wes about the concept that people are a product of their environment.
"He said that we are products of our expectations," said Moore, noting that both of them had lived up to their expectations.
"Expectations aren't born from nowhere, but come from the expectations that other people have for you. What we think of ourselves matters," he said. "People are watching you."
He recalled a comment made by his military school commandant who was in failing health. "He said to make sure it matters that we were there in school. Do something. Make it matter. Then we will be educated," said Moore.
Taking questions from the audience, Moore was asked what an adult might have said or done during his youth that made a difference for good or bad.
On the destructive side, Moore responded, were the teachers who made excuses for his bad behavior and frequent absences. "You're never doing me a favor by making excuses for my actions. Don't lower expectations for kids or tell them they can't compete," he advised.
Also important were the leadership concepts that were taught in military school, where he learned a "graduated sense of responsibility." Sadly, he said, members of drug gangs learn the same skills.
"Drug gangs are not complicated. They have the same organizational structure as a blue chip fortune 500 company," he said, adding that gang leaders know how to introduce leadership to kids who need it in their lives. "We must somehow make that into a positive thing."
Also along the way, he knew he had to change his definition of friendship. During his youthful encounters with authority, "I'd get in trouble and they'd leave," he said of his friends. "Now, my definition of a friend is one who wants the best for me in all situations."
Moore had the rapt attention of the young people in the audience, including students from Homewood High, Holy Family Cristo Rey School, Restoration Academy, YMCA Y Achievers, and members of Leadership Southtown, a Baptist Church of the Covenant ministry that serves students from several Birmingham schools.
Several students connected with Moore's point about people being a product of their expectations.
Lily Dendy, who had read his book in an English class at Homewood High School, said the "nature versus nurture" topic had been discussed in a psychology class. "It was eye opening to hear him talk about living up to expectations that people have for you," she said.
Tyler Presswood, one of 26 students from Holy Family Cristo Rey, said he liked Moore's tenet that "the choices you make affect the path you take and the outcome of your life."
Most of the student guests arrived early before the lecture to enjoy a campus tour and a meal in the Samford dining hall.
After the talk, many lined up with adult audience members to meet Moore and get books autographed.
The line included Samford sophomore Luke Chandler, who hoped to snare a few minutes of Moore's time to discuss the expectations concept. It is a troubling problem that he had seen first-hand during a mission trip to a poverty-stricken area of rural Mississippi, he said.
"There is a lot of gang activity there and people with low expectations. Kids don't see a way out. They don't believe in themselves, and that they can do better," said Chandler, a journalism and mass communication major from Chattanooga, Tenn. Moore, he said, is directly addressing the issues he saw in that community.
"He has a powerful message that needs to get out."