I have a letter in a box somewhere from Joe Paterno. It is a very short letter, explaining that while he couldn’t judge a contest my fifth grade class was holding (despite the letter I wrote him in my very best handwriting. I even resorted to outlining some words in magic marker so he would understand how serious our plea was), we should keep rooting for Penn State.
Of course we would root for Penn State, whether he judged us or not. Joe wasn’t a hero to our rural Pennsylvania school; he was a god. For those holdouts who weren’t quite ready to make JoePa divine (How do you know God is a Penn State fan? The sky is blue and white!), he was the patron saint of the clean cut and the pure of heart. If you worked hard and honorably, you too could be admitted into his pantheon at Penn State. In fact, even if you had—like me and my family—only moved to the neighborhood a couple of weeks before school started, the price of admission was low—just come to the homecoming parade and shout, “We are… Penn State!” and a few flecks of his gold dust could land on you.
The all-encompassing nature of Penn State (drinking school with a football problem), was something every Happy Valley resident grappled with. Grange Fair babies in the spring, Nittany Lion traffic in the autumn. You might plan your day around the home games to avoid them or to join them, but you couldn’t ignore them.
In return, JoePa didn’t ignore my colorful letter. I never thought that Joe Paterno, or anyone who grew up to nestle under his tough and leathery wing, could ignore a child being raped in their sacred locker room.
As I’ve plunged into the Occupy Wall Street movement, I’ve become open to new realities where riots happen in California and it matters to me. And who gets arrested at my local occupation, through the wonders of the internet and solidarity, matters to people in Egypt and Poughkeepsie.
I admire people who risk their comfort and even their lives in front of riot squads for justice, for democracy, for freedom from fear. They make me tremble; I fear for them, who sacrifice their bodies so their fellow humans can be free. That is grace under fire, that is heroic… but that isn’t me. I can feed them and tweet about them but I cannot be them.
I was, however, Penn State.
Even though I had no special love for sports in general, I admired the things that Joe Pa stood for. If I couldn’t be a football player, I could still work hard and honorably, I could still cheer for the community he created in his image. I could still find pleasure in seeing Penn State sweatshirts and bumper stickers outside of Happy Valley, a spot of familiar blue and white wherever I went. The Penn State football franchise might not have been all that and a bag of chips in my book, but they were alright.
But as the allegations of child rape and systemic cover-ups seep into my consciousness, nothing feels alright. I am brought down to my knees, the ground underneath me shakes. Questioning neo-liberal capitalism is a cakewalk, intellectually, compared to trying to understand how anyone—even Mike McQueary, who enthusiastically shoved nerds into their junior high lockers, way in the way back—could sacrifice a child so Penn State could pretend nothing happened.
There is no honor in that.There is only shame.
When I got the chance to hug Hero Vincent, outside Rafi’s coffee cart in Liberty Plaza, I thanked him for putting himself on the line for my kids. I stuttered awkwardly, then added, “I mean, I know you’re not doing it *for them*…”
He gently interrupted me, “I’m doing it for everybody.”
That’s the thing about heroes—they don’t sacrifice children. They sacrifice themselves.
Now… I am still Penn State, moreso than I realized until this horrific story came out. I still hope that there will somewhere in the tale be a moment of grace, a heroic stand, a person determined and true.
As of now, though, the only comfort I have is remembering that I am not just a “Little Lion” staring up in awe at a parade float majestically passing by. I am also a member of the 99%, working determinedly for a more just society, where anyone can be a hero, but no other person is sacrificed.
May no act of mine bring shame.