Yesterday, when I walked onto campus, a young man crossed my path, a Penn State undergrad, moving zombie-like down the incline of the walkway, in the opposite direction of me. I had to stop to watch him, his eyes shut closed, a lazy goose step in his gait. The image has been seared into my neurology. Every time I close my eyes, I see him walking away, drained, aimless, his eyes closed, without recourse, without words.
When I arrived at Penn State to begin grad school last summer, I was unfamiliar with things like Joe Pa or Paternoville, the meaning of Blue and White, the chant of “WE ARE PENN STATE.” When I say I was unfamiliar with these codes of collective honor, I don’t mean that I didn’t know them specifically – I had no idea such worlds even existed, generally. I went to a small liberal arts college in Ohio where I was barely aware we had a football team, where individuality was placed far above the idea of the collective, where dissent and cynicism was the code of honor, where there we sneered with disdain and skepticism at athletics or the reverence that surrounded the athletes of our high schools. I thought Football Universities were manufactured settings for Hollywood films. Not real places.
At Penn State, I became instantly intrigued with the myth of Joe Paterno, his godlike status, his place as icon. His image sits on the walls and in the windows of many local shops in the same way that Jesus’ image might be the centerpiece of a devoutly Catholic home. In many ways, I was envious of those who so fully engaged in the ecstatic religious experience that was Penn State football. I have always yearned for that sense of community. I am a woman who constantly looks for ways to find the extraordinary in the ordinary – to make the profane feel sacred. I like the ideal of constructing rituals and myths out of men. It’s what we do best as human beings – something that makes us so fascinating to me. It’s the one thing that I think binds us all together – our love for magical narratives based in real life.
The immense pride that many take in the honor and comport of our football team did not seem dubious or creepy to me at all. I enjoyed what it stood for – I enjoyed watching the narrative that Penn Staters spun around Joe Paterno and his soldiers. I heard that, before games, he would recite the Illiad in ancient Greek to his players, preparing them for the field. I loved that our football team was an allegory for so many great principles: grace under pressure, dignity, composure, and education, especially when athletics always seem to be at odds with education in the master narrative of our land grant universities. Joe Paterno, himself a magna cum laude graduate of Brown University, where he studied the Classics (a secret passion of mine), was said to be the most academically aware coach of college football, setting academic standards for his team that unparalleled any other in NCAA Division I sports. That made me proud and gave me material with which to teach. In my English 15 class, we dissected the rhetoric of Penn State football, through which I could teach metaphor and device and argumentation in a way that mattered to the lives of my students. As a writer, I got to see, first hand, how narrative played a real role in the lives of Americans in a way I found profound and elegant. A new spirituality.
Still, I have not yet been to a Penn State football game, nor have I been anywhere near the stadium on game days. I don’t own any Penn State gear. I still see myself as an outsider in this culture, though I appreciate it and have found some pride in it. I have very slowly started to see myself as a part of it.
Then, the horrific news came about Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State coach who was being indicted for the sexual abuse of eight young boys. At first, I looked upon this news like I think many did – an isolated incident about an alleged pedophile who fit the profile of another mythic narrative: that of the monster. And I thought of the many cases I had written about during my stint as a journalist – the stories of men who committed terrifying acts. I always tried to write about these pieces in a way that attempted to understand who these men were and how these things happened, because, the myth of the monster occluded the real point of the problem and didn’t allow us to engage in an understanding of pedophiles that would allow us to try and stop the problem. I read the Sandusky stories looking for these sorts of answers as well.