Friday, December 20, 2013

The Other Marianne Modica?

Last month I was invited to participate in "One Book, One Church," a program sponsored by Wayne Presbyterian Church. (Check it our here: One Book, One Church at Wayne Pres.) Beginning in February, I hope to take part in group discussions about the New York Times bestseller, "The Other Wes Moore," which parallels the lives of two young African American males with the same name.  It's an interesting read: both Moores grew up with single moms in difficult circumstances, but while the author was able to break free from the poverty and crime that surrounded him, the other Wes Moore committed a crime that left a police officer dead and landed him in prison for life. The story invites the reader to ask, why? What factors in the lives of these two young men influenced their choices? For that matter, how much of the way their lives unfolded was due to choice, and how much to inescapable circumstance?

Maybe because I'm an early childhood teacher educator, reading this book brought to mind a longstanding debate in the field of child development -- nature v. nurture.  (Remember that Eddie Murphy/Dan Aykroyd movie,  "Trading Places"? I loved that movie.) Why was one, but not the other Wes Moore able to overcome his difficult environment? Was there something genetic, some biological attribute that the author inherited that helped him avoid the negative influences of his environment and make a decent life for himself?

Sociologists reading this book might think of a different debate known as structure v. agency.  How much do structures in the environment influence people's life paths, and how much does their own individual freedom to choose determine the lives they end up leading? Are structures like poverty and crime so engulfing that they are almost impossible to escape? If so, how is it that some people do break free? Is it a matter of will power, luck, fate, or karma? Or is there some other mysterious factor involved? As a person of faith, I believe in God's providence, but I also know that there are no guarantees and that bad things can happen to people regardless of their religious beliefs.

I don't know. I do know that the author of the book, the Wes Moore who made it, had educated parents and a family support system. He had relatives who were able to provide the financial help needed to get him out of his deteriorating neighborhood and send him to Valley Forge Military Academy (located right in this area). He had social capital that the other Wes Moore didn't have. Still, are those the only reasons for his success?

There isn't really another Marianne Modica, but I did once have an older brother, Phil, and people did say we looked alike (or maybe I just wanted to believe that because he was really cute).  Phil was seven years older than I, and as a young kid I worshipped him.  He read me comics (The Justice League was our favorite) and introduced me to The Twilight Zone, which, luckily, I was too young to understand and so avoided nightmares. Then, as a teenager, Phil began using heroin and soon became an addict.  He dropped out of school, stole, spent time in jail, and was in and out of our home until the day he and his friends started a fire in a bedroom with a cigarette; at that point my parents kicked him out for good. We sort of stayed in touch, as I'd see him around the neighborhood every once in a while. Phil finally died a drug-related death at the age of 24.

So why did reading "The Other Wes Moore" make me think of a brother that I lost so many decades ago? It made me wonder how kids from the same neighborhood, and even from the same family, can turn out so differently. My family's white, working class status provided me with the benefit of a safe neighborhood and a good education, of that there is no doubt. But my brother was the recipient of that same kind of capital. And like him, I certainly was no angel when I was growing up. In fact, I took risks that could have gotten me into serious trouble. Life could have turned out very differently for me. Yet here I am, this Marianne Modica. I feel grateful that the other Marianne Modica, the Marianne Modica that easily could have existed, didn't. Grateful and incredibly lucky.