Single-Minded: When Does (Adult) Life Begin?

Adulthood happens whether you're ready or not, whether you want it—or not. A Rhodes scholar/Army vet and author of ''The Other Wes Moore'' provides some guideposts on how to get there. Call it the road less traveled.

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There will always be deadly debate over when life begins. Conception? Birth? 40? But the start line to adulthood is always drawn at 18--all right 21, if you're lucky, and maybe 30, if you're late.

What no one talks about is the change that has to happen. The switch that someone (or something) has to flip in order to go from runt to ripe, girl to grown-up, boy to man. Thankfully, Wes Moore--Rhodes scholar, Army vet and now author--chose to do just that in his memoir of actualization, The Other Wes Moore.

At a recent appearance at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., Moore spoke about ''the psychological change that started to take place'' when he was at Valley Forge Military Academy, which eventually started him on his ''journey to manhood.'' He told the story of being a typical, troubled teenager. If you had known him 20 years ago, he explained, ''this journey seems extraordinarily unlikely.'' He was fighting, skipping school and spray-painting buildings.

''Finally, my mother decided that a change needed to happen,'' Moore said. His mother knew something about change, particularly of the enforced kind. See, when Moore was 3 years old, his mother was forced to transition herself, from wife to widow. Then a few years later, in the late 1980s, the entire Moore family moved from Baltimore back to the Bronx--a transitioning neighborhood if there ever was one. They lived in the house Moore's grandparents bought when they first came to the country two decades earlier, themselves transitioning from Cuba to Jamaica and--finally--to the United States.

Life is about choices, Moore said repeatedly to an enraptured audience. Because right around the time that Wes Moore the Success Story was heading off to Oxford University as Johns Hopkins' first black Rhodes Scholar, The Other Wes Moore (a young man with the same name, the same age and from the same neighborhood) was on his way to life without parole for murdering an off-duty police officer. (The officer was also a father of five.)

''As I'm heading off to England on a full scholarship, the other Wes Moore is headed off to Jessup Maximum Security for the rest of his life,'' said Moore, adding that the man with whom he shares a name sealed his own fate long before that night in February 2007 when he decided to rob a jewelry store.

After Moore spoke, he handed the podium over to organizations that work with young people in Washington--City Year, the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation (CYIT), and the U.S. Dream Academy.

I was struck by a representative from the CYIT, who said that the group provides support for ''a safe, healthy and successful transition from childhood to adulthood.'' In this digital era, I wondered what this ''healthy'' transition would look like--seeing as how most of us haven't transitioned much farther than a second-generation upgrade. Although the days when friends are an elevator ride away and dinner plans are made on the way to somebody's hall are long gone, Facebook, MySpace, G-chat, LinkedIn, Skype, Twitter and whatever people are doing this very nanosecond make it impossible to be too nostalgic for too long. We're constantly reliving homeroom.

Sure, adulthood comes in jigsaw pieces. And once the painstaking work of fitting them all together is done, the picture never looks as cool as it did on the box. But how do we make a ''safe, healthy and successful'' transition into adulthood when it seems as if we have yet to leave our adolescence behind?

When his mother picked up, Moore pleaded. He promised to make the switch from problem child to A+ student. She let him talk--and then told him that he was staying put. ''Too many people had a vested interest in your success,'' she said. And his light switch flicked on--slowly but steadily.

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