“It will be a lot longer until the wounds from the Sandusky child-abuse scandal can finally close. But Penn State is now trying to move toward that healing.”
~Brian Barnett, ESPN
I walked onto Penn State’s Old Main lawn. A pall was draped over the people walking under the elms, the beech, and the willow tree. Almost everyone was mourning. It was just a few days since the news broke that Jerry Sandusky bad been charged with 40 counts of child sex abuse. Eight young boys. Fifteen years.
We felt lost. Students and faculty and staff of this university were shambling around like the walking dead. Something had been taken from them. They’d been betrayed. The ensuing days, weeks, months, and years have forced us to deal with the predator and his abettors so often. Sandusky has been convicted and imprisoned and there are ongoing legal affairs for other university officials who should have reported it. Morally, we all know they should have done better.
The maelstrom that has swirled from time to time since 2011 has always been about who “We are” at Penn State and in Happy Valley. It must be about children and how we care for those who we are entrusted to care for, treating them well, and helping them recover. We need a community of trust, a community that can have faith that when a child is in the care of a grown man that he will play with them and guide them as a good parent would. And if people learn that he’s a predator that we have to know that someone will report it. We must be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. The utter failure of those we trusted before nearly ruined at least those eight children, including one of Sandusky’s adopted sons (my former student), and has wreaked havoc on our community. There has been years of mourning.
Today I’m contemplating that mourning again.
News reports that Joe Paterno allegedly failed to protect children from Sandusky as early as 1976. Penn Live reports that a “bombshell” appears in a 1976 insurance report claiming that “a child allegedly reported to PSU’s Head Coach Joe Paterno that he (the child) was sexually molested by Sandusky.” Additionally, “unnamed assistant coaches witnessed inappropriate contact between Sandusky and unidentified children, and a 1988 case that was supposedly referred to Penn State’s athletic director at the time.” The new reports might just be click bait, more attention-grubbing for the media. I don’t know.
But I do know that again and again, this tragedy has crashed down upon us. It’s as if we are rebuilding our town and the maelstrom returns. Another flood sweeps the streets, its power pushing hard on our trust. It pummels the survivors. It’s another time that they have to find shelter.
I’m most concerned with how we respond.
We won’t see riots like we did in the days after Paterno was fired. But the cult of personality continues to deify him. Already I see more talk about the statue of the football legend than how we create caring communities. Still, there are oodles of signs saying “PROUD TO SUPPORT PENN STATE FOOTBALL” and “409” (the number of Paterno’s wins) as if doubling down on the tribe makes us better people. That’s the logic of nationalism and cultish jingoism fed by propaganda. It distracts us from the problem, the problem of who “We are.” Thankfully some people have done better.
People have held community conversations and vigils. Penn State has created programs to more deliberately protect children. People have had hard talks about our society’s failures, about predators, about broken homes. We can do these even better. Some have created a more caring meme around “We are…” We know how to be and probably what to do. “We are…” going to continue to do it. Right?
It’s easy to get swept up in the emotional flood. The comments on the stories in the media already show it. Look at the #JoePaKnew threads on Twitter. You can drown in the deluge of sports-related identity politics. It’s an orgy of distrust about institutions–Penn State, the Second Mile, insurance companies, the government. Somehow Hillary Clinton’s name has been thrown into the debacle. Such is our nation’s cynicism and level of discourse. Base. Crude. Infantile. Uncompassionate.
Maybe we can rise above that.
Can we harness the fire of this outrage and indignation? Are you and I able to view it as a source of energy? When terror crawls, fury roars, and sadness drags on you, that’s an invitation to be the best person you can be. I don’t mean this in some kind of pop positive psychology way. These aren’t empty invitations to play a role in a glossy self-help book with a grinning insipid golly-gee person on the cover. I mean playing a role in reducing the suffering of others and increasing the health and conviviality of our community.
When I walked up Old Main lawn that day in 2011, I made a little sign that said, “HEAL”. I sat on Old Main’s steps for a few hours. People looked at me and nodded or smiled. A few said, “Thank you.” The next day I made a bigger sign that said, “JUSTICE. HEALING. CARING.” I stayed on those steps for most of the morning and afternoon for the next three days.
I met a lot of people those days. I know it meant something to many of them. Students from classes did silent walking meditations across the Old Main plaza. Their professor later told me I’d inspired them to do it. They took those walks all over campus. One student couldn’t understand why Joe Paterno was fired, and he rambled on and on about it wondering what was happening. How could all of this happen? Others simply walked by and smiled and nodded in the way where you feel their heart sink and rise like a bob in the ocean. They recognized the gravity and were glad to have someone there focused on what matters. People sang. They had vigils. I was around all of them for days, mostly an observer with my simple message.
I talked with an ESPN writer who finished his article like this:
The hard work of that will be done after the satellite trucks and national reporters leave town. Focusing on the values of Buckland’s sign “Justice Healing Caring” provides a good road map. As he finished up an interview with a reporter, a group of student singers gathered on the Old Main steps to sing the Penn State alma mater. While the line “May no act of ours bring shame” has been on the forefront of everyone’s mind this week, there’s another, earlier part of the song that may prove more crucial: “For the future that we wait.”
The future is here and we are still wondering whether acts of ours have brought shame. There are no simple answers to what’s really happened in the tangled webs we’ve woven.
But there are simple steps that “We are…” going to keep taking. Simply caring for who and what matters most to us–one another–will go a long way.