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Two Young Men, Two Very Different Directions

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I am dating myself here, but do you remember the 1983 film Trading Places? Where the comedians Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy played an investment broker and a street hustler, respectively, whose places in life were switched by the owners of Aykroyd's fictional firm?

The owners did the switch to settle a bet they had made of whether nature or nurture played a bigger role in determining how someone's life would turn out. Needless to say, high jinks ensue, and although Aykroyd's character is brought to the brink of despair, he and Murphy team up to get revenge on the men who pulled the scam. The buddies are last seen chilling together on a beach. And, yes, Jamie Lee Curtis plays the lovable prostitute with the heart of gold. She gets bank and to chill on the beach, too, in the end.

All kidding aside, that film popped into my head this weekend when I was reading the metro section of my local paper, and I could not help but notice two stories that were literally side by side.

One was about an 18-year-old Virginia high school student who was a finalist in this country's oldest and most prestigious pre-college science competition. He has been recognized for original research in physics that he has already published with a co-author.

The other story, right beside it, was about a 28-year-old man who is facing at least 25 years in prison for his role in a series of shootings that left five people, mostly teenagers, dead. But the shooter, Nathaniel Simms, is lucky — even though he has admitted he was among those who aimed an assault weapon and handguns out the window of a rented minivan, at a group of kids whom they did not even know, and pulled their triggers, he said, without even looking. Sims is lucky because he'll probably get that 25-year prison sentence. The other five young men on trial with him are facing life.

Why did Simms and the others allegedly do it? It started — I kid you not — over a bracelet that went missing at a party. That led to a shooting ... that led to another shooting ... that led to a final confrontation after the funeral for one of the victims of the previous shooting. On the witness stand, Simms was actually asked his reason for participating in the shootings. He started to sob, and he answered that he didn't really have one — except that as a witness to one of the prior killings, he seems to have felt he had to do something else.

What about the other young man, the physics prodigy? His name is Ari Dyckovsky, and it turns out that life for him has not been easy. Dyckovsky's father, an executive with whom he shared a love of math, died of a heart attack when Dyckovsky was only 9 years old. The article says he lost his enthusiasm for learning until he found a school that matched his interests, two mentors who helped him find appropriate projects and someone to guide him.

As my eyes moved across the page, from the story of a boy whose life is just beginning to a group of boys whose lives are, for all intents and purposes, over, I asked myself: What would it have taken to move those lost boys from column B to column A? What would it have taken for them to have had something to live for other than driving around in a minivan looking for people to shoot? Would it have cost a lot of money? I don't know.

But I do know that Dyckovsky is competing for a $100,000 scholarship. He'll find out this week if he gets it. That's about half of what it's going to cost to lock up Simms and his five co-conspirators for one year.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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