There are two Wes Moores-one is a Rhodes Scholar, White House Fellow, and author, and the other is a criminal who will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

They share roots in the poverty of crime-ridden neighborhoods in Baltimore. Why did one become a successful, upstanding citizen and the other ruin his life (apparently taking, along the way, the life of another person)? Michael Gerson has a must-read column on the two Wes Moores today in the Washington Post. The difference, it seems, was their parents:

 Both boys had caring, single mothers. But tenacity turns out to be as important as caring. The imprisoned Wes Moore’s mother lived in denial about her son’s drug dealing. The author’s mother had “hands that hit so hard you had to be hit only once to know you never wanted to be hit again.” For years, she slept on a couch in the living room, standing guard over her children in a troubled neighborhood. She sent her son to a private school she couldn’t afford. When he began skipping class and failing, she threatened him with military school. “She had to be bluffing,” thought Moore. She wasn’t.

 In the most wrenching moment of the book, the troubled Wes Moore encounters his father, whom he has rarely seen, in a stupor on a relative’s couch. After he was awakened, this father looks into the eyes of his son and asks, “Who are you?” The author’s father dies when Wes is 3 but remains an image of manhood, “calm, reassuring, hardworking and sober.” A father who dies remains a presence in a child’s life; a father who leaves is an absence never fully filled.