Wes Moore, a Johns Hopkins graduate, Rhodes Scholar, Army combat veteran and best-selling author, stood before a small group of teens at the A La Carte Pavilion Thursday evening, ready to offer remarks and field questions.
I knew he would start by sharing with the kids the keys to his success. I knew he would tell them how he rose from a troubled childhood in a hard-scrabble neighborhood to work as a White House fellow.
And I was wrong.
Moore, in town to speak at the United Way's Art of Giving Gala, instead used the pre-event gathering to heap sincere and earnest praise on the teens from the Boys & Girls Club of Tampa Bay, the Bank of America's Student Leaders program and Starting Right, Now, a nonprofit that services unaccompanied youth.
"I want to thank you all for what you're doing," Moore said. "You have no idea the level of inspiration and the level of fire that you give everybody.
"Seriously, it means more to us than you can possibly imagine."
The twist surprised those who listened. The author whose captivating real-life work inspired the kids — many brought copies of Moore's book for him to sign — looked genuinely inspired to be before the group.
"You can listen to a narrative 24-7 about how bad our community is," Moore said. "But then you get a chance to see the young people who are doing the right thing, and it lets you know regardless of what news reports come in, we live in a pretty amazing community.
"These young people are a celebration of that."
In an instant, the Wes Moore session became a mutual admiration confab. He treated them like adults. He spoke to them, not at them.
And they asked questions that not only reflected their admiration, but their knowledge of his best-selling book, The Other Wes Moore.
In the 2010 book, Moore juxtaposes his success with the life of someone he didn't know, another man named Wes Moore who also grew up in his tough Baltimore neighborhood without a father.
While the author overcame anger over his father's death at the age of 4 to eventually enjoy success, the other Wes Moore ultimately ended up participating in a botched robbery that resulted in the death of a police officer.
He's now serving a life sentence in a Maryland prison.
The story about Moore earning a Rhodes Scholarship appeared in the same Baltimore Sun edition about the other Wes Moore's involvement in the robbery.
Moore, intrigued by the parallel lives, eventually sent a letter to the man serving the life sentence. A relationship formed and the two explored how their lives took different paths and the challenges facing all young black men.
Today, they still talk. In fact, the other Wes Moore wanted the kids in Florida to know they should embrace, cherish and protect every opportunity they have. It's undoubtedly advice a man facing a life sentence wishes he would have heeded.
Someone once asked the author, "Are certain decisions more important than others?"
"The honest answer is yes," Moore told the kids. "The problem is when we're in the middle of making those decisions, we don't know which one is which.
"So take each and every one like, 'This is the one that will have a lasting effect.' "
It's the simple fact of science: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The world's a better place because Wes Moore learned that lesson before it was too late.
That's all I'm saying.