by

Something Incomprehensible

Sitting on the runway at Dulles, about to fly up to State College on one of United’s Dash-8s, I found myself behind two rows of university students, one on each side of the plane. It was the day of the Penn State-Ohio State football game and as we backed away from the terminal, the young people began a familiar cheer: They shouted, “WE ARE,” and waited for the response, for the small plane to rock with a matching-in-pitch-and-intensity, “PENN STATE!” The response didn’t come—a few passengers mumbled the school’s name but the cabin was, for the greatest part, silent, and the students—one of whom wore a PSU cheerleader T-shirt—did not try again.

It was a gray day in State College. It was a game day and the traffic was bad and my friend and I drove through groups of people heading for the stadium. I’d not been in town for a couple of years and noted the many signs in downtown business windows—“Proud to Support Penn State Football.”  I thought of the “Soul Brother” signs on shops owned by black merchants during the riots of the 1960s. And there have been, in recent years, riots in State College. Or conflagrations with the police that people called riots. I’m reminded of Dr. King’s definition, that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

I taught for many years at Penn State, leaving in 2007 for my current position on the West Coast. I taught and worked with fine people—students, faculty—but often felt distant from State College itself; it had a suburban ambience and a “good” high school (which sent many students, including my daughter, to Cornell) and was described repeatedly as “a good place to raise children,” meaning it was well-off and meaning it was “safe,” which means—I think—that it was free from the kind of urban fear index that drove so many folks to the ’burbs. The phenomenon that’s described, incompletely, as “white flight.” State College was a suburb with no urb and the rural also seemed far away and, for many, as scary as a big city.

From the coast, I watched the Jerry Sandusky scandal widen during the last year with the obvious sense of sadness—a monster was harbored, powerful people (including the iconic Coach Joe Paterno) allowed the crimes to go on, there were victims. Michael Bérubé speaks about the signs in store windows that I noted as I entered the city last week, this in his recent piece in The Chronicle: “To an outsider, surely those signs read: We’re Just Going to Pretend This Whole Thing Never Happened.” But I take the bigger point of his essay to be the one almost hidden at the end of a paragraph halfway through, a paragraph in which he defends Joe Paterno against charges that he was paid too much, that he was arrogant, etc.  Bérubé wrote, “I know it is hard to think that ‘Paterno is innocent of X and Y even though he is at fault for Z,’ when Z involves something so hideous and overwhelming. But the schadenfreude and the piling on have been remarkable.” Bérubé asks us to carry two different ideas in our heads at once. This is, perhaps, not an original plea but, judging from my own experience of humanity, I know how we damn so easily and totally and how we just as totally defend the indefensible. It’s either this or that.

Penn State didn’t do well against Ohio State. Hurricane Sandy seemed to be coming and the public schools were canceled and the only bookstore—Barnes & Noble near the Nittany Mall—closed early as did the liquor stores. Penn State was hosting the Child Sexual Abuse Conference out at the Penn Stater and, according to the daily paper, the Centre Daily Times, people seemed to be agreeing that it was a good way for the university to start to “heal.” But on the editorial page, Deborah Jacobs began her column, “All eyes are on Penn State this week as it begins to to atone for the past. …”  Celebrities—Elizabeth Smart, Sugar Ray Leonard—were in attendance. At the parking garage a bright sign proclaimed “Together we are Proud of Our Community; Together we are One Moving Forward.” At this point I’m an outsider at Penn State and State College (perhaps I always was) and to me things felt gray beyond the weather—the signs and, oddly enough, even the conference only seemed to underline that.

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