By Casey Wiley
This past sunny, crisp Sunday December morning, walking in downtown Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, the town in which I live and the town in which today, Tuesday, December 13, Jerry Sandusky, former assistant football coach at Penn State University, waved a preliminary hearing on multiple counts of child sexual assault allegations, a hot restlessness returned to my chest. I took a seat on a bench in front of the court house. I watched two horse-drawn buggies parading bundled children and camera-wielding adults through the town on a hill. A handful of people sauntered by dressed for some reason as characters from “A Christmas Carol.” Mrs. Fezziwig waved excitedly. It took me a moment, but I realized she was waving at me. I waved back, but it was too late; the group was already crossing the street.
Over 1,300 people applied for 100-something seats in Courtroom One. At least six accusers were slated to testify against Sandusky. The case will now proceed to Common Pleas court. One accuser — a man now, but a boy then — testified before a grand jury that he had screamed and screamed from Sandusky’s basement.
This awful scandal lingers thick like a terrible, unremitting pain, like that scream on repeat, louder each time. No, any simile here just sounds silly. As a lecturer in Penn State’s English Department I’ve talked extensively with my shaken students. More personally, I’ve started writing about the scandal. Scrawls in the margin of my class notes. A series of questions. I feel then like I have exercised some control over the distorted environment around me, in me.
Late evening Wednesday night, November 9, my cell phone buzzed on the bedside table. A friend’s text read that I would soon have a new boss. Letting my wife of one month sleep, I slipped out of bed knowing full well that Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno, President and Head football coach, respectively, of Penn State University were no longer employed by the University. On my computer in the darkness of our office I watched trustee John Surma’s press conference. Someone was yelling from the audience of media members. Surma didn’t flinch. As I refreshed tweets from the university’s undergraduate newspaper reporters while scanning tedious YouTube clips of morphing clusters of shadowed students gathering around Old Main on campus and starting to tickle downtown, a growing anxiety built steadily in me for this collected group, which, I assumed, contained some of the students I would see the next day at 8 a.m. for their composition class.
A tweet from “Onward State,” a student-run news organization: “The sound of police sirens and car horns, and the sight of students pouring out of apartments. Headed to a riot.”
My apartment was very quiet. I kept thinking about this quiet while watching these videos, most of them on mute to cut out the wind. The shadows played on the students’ faces like camouflage. A hot restlessness thumping in me, I tried to think back twelve years to my fall semester freshman year. I couldn’t imagine how at 17 or 18 at a school in New York I would be feeling about so many child molestation allegations, the sickening images from the grand jury testimony, an axed football coach who I think I would have looked up to, and the rest of the cracked hierarchy. College was supposed to be about figuring out what one enjoyed doing and then doing that well, about socializing and, at Penn State, it was about football.
College was not about a man, any man, and a boy (allegedly) together in a shower or a basement. And then other boys. And it was not about people of power (allegedly) knowing about this. And doing little to stop it. That’s not supposed to be college.
That’s not supposed to be anything.
Three weeks before the allegations broke en masse, on some sunny fall morning, I asked my mostly freshman composition students to write about what it means to be at Penn State. No, that wasn’t right, I said. I thought about it more. I’m an outsider here, I told them. I’ve been teaching at Penn State for two years. I grew up in upstate New York, and I have no family members who attended the university. This may be the case at other major universities, I continued, but hyperbole aside students here seem to express — in the most real and basic sense of the word — Love for the school. Students have feelings for it, a heavy devotion. I said this in all seriousness.
In short: What is this feeling of being at Penn State? Or of being Penn State?
My students smiled — they got it, this strange, maybe naïve philosophy: Penn State-ology, or whatever silly thing one might call it. My students wrote, but in the end, they couldn’t articulate what this Penn State feeling was. Football? Paterno? Tradition? My dad went here? And my grandpa? The social scene? The library and old buildings? In short: Penn State just was. And it was good. I wasn’t satisfied, but I couldn’t articulate why. My students watched me. Like most days, roughly a third of them in this 24 person class wore an article of clothing with big PSU lettering sewn or ironed to it.
From my experience, students, faculty and staff seem to want to be here. That’s certainly not true of many places I’ve studied and worked. And while I sometimes softly question my students’ blind reverence to the school (both pre- and post-scandal) I can recognize that the students just like being at Penn State, and they like the idea of Penn State.
Surveying my students, I shrugged. We moved on to something about essay structure or editing or whatever. Then everything exploded.
Another tweet from that Wednesday night from “Onward State,” the student tweeter now presumably downtown: “Odd scene here. Still peaceful. Students more curious than outraged. Gathering…just because. Not a riot.”
On the internet, a grainy cell phone video showed students clustered along College Ave. Chanting something that I couldn’t discern. Some guy’s face flashed across the screen; he yelled something about Paterno. The shot jerked skyward, then returned to street level. Many of the students were recording everything with their cell phones, their arms out as if presenting an identification card to the police standing in the middle of the street in riot gear.
Growing up in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, I played soccer and lacrosse, believed probably too often that my dinky high school games were far more important than my studies. Sports provided me with a chesty, intense, menacing feeling that I couldn’t drum up anywhere else; games provided me with an opponent, an enemy, an outlet. Most weekends I’d watch games — soccer, football, you name it — on TV with my father. I followed Penn State football as I’d follow any other major sports program; I recognized the prominent players (Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter, LaVar Arrington) maybe caught a game or two on television mostly by happenstance. While an English major at Siena College, I interned for the Miami Dolphins in a department called Football Operations. I worked for that team the year I graduated college; I thought sports would be my future.
But since teaching as a creative writing fellow at Penn State Altoona campus two years ago and then as a full-time lecturer at University Park, I’ve felt myself growing away from sports. Reading and writing were pursuits I could simultaneously escape into, but also control. These pursuits felt like reality, while sports were play. But in central Pennsylvania, Penn State’s football team, and mass opinion about it, was everywhere. The guy at the car dealership asked my opinion, twice, of Rob Bolden versus Matt McGloin. A librarian in my town, wearing a Penn State sweatshirt over her frilled collared shirt, asked me what I thought the team’s chances were of beating Alabama. (We agreed: not very good.) My students grumbled fairly often before classes started about the inept offense, and, yes, about Joe Pa needing to hang it up. Football was a strange, simple bond. We all got it, the metaphor or the real thing: in that massive stadium on the edge of campus that’s also on the edge of farmland those eleven guys wore the school colors and collided with eleven other guys in other school colors, and it was televised big and bright and loud. That’s my school, we’d say.
During breaks from grading, I’d find myself on college football recruiting websites checking in on potential Penn State recruits. We need a quarterback, I thought. We need an impact defensive end. Then I’d think: What the hell am I doing? In the student bookstore, seeking a Penn State gift for a friend, I pondered buying for myself a Silas Redd jersey. I admired the unadorned navy jersey with white trim; it was simple, solid. (I didn’t buy the thing, but despite the high price tag, the thought wasn’t absurd.) I’ve attended a few games, been sandwiched amongst the 108,000 and all those collective cheers that everyone’s written about that sound juvenile and insular unless you’re standing in them. At those moments, that chesty, competitive feeling returned, and I admit, I felt a part of something; I felt, strangely, proud.
Much of the week discussing the Penn State scandal with my students is a blur. I condensed my lesson plans drastically, and we spent much time writing and talking about the tragic events. Like many other people in and out of the university, I asked the following questions to my students: What is a person — from a graduate student, or janitor, to Athletic Director and VP and President — morally obligated to do when encountering a heinous situation? What makes a rounded, moral person? One student commented that she finds it funny that “everyone” claims to know how they would react when witnessing something so heinous, that they’re all so certain they’d “do the right thing.”
Another student said that despite feeling horrible thinking of those innocent children in those hard, echoing showers; and despite receiving a few mocking messages from friends on Facebook; and considering the idea of “Success with Honor” as possible façade, he’s found ways to still be proud of Penn State. What makes you proud? I asked. He said that he feels good about his department, Engineering. It’s a strong department, he said, and he’s a part of it. Another student said students on his hall were saying they might transfer, and he implied this was over Paterno’s firing. He said, and I agree with him, that if you’re attending Penn State for football, and football alone, you shouldn’t be here anyway.
I’m not sure what the students can learn from this horrible situation – long and short term – but I remember saying to them in class and out that week, that while they have every right to feel ashamed, confused, angry with Penn State and its leadership, or lack thereof, maybe the silver lining here, if there is one, is that the students, the community, me, we can all be reminded that Penn State is not a so-so school with a big football program; it is a strong school, now with a tainted football program and hierarchy. And because of that, the entire school is tainted. But the school doesn’t stop teaching and researching and discovering and learning. This school is built on ideas, and the advancement of ideas, I told them. And I believe that.
But as I was professing this I realized: as proud as I am to say I teach at Penn State, of the myriad student and faculty accomplishments surrounding me, I have very little real, concrete knowledge of Penn State’s academic power. I know the school is academically strong, but I could tell you quickly that Matt McGloin is the better quarterback this year, but should be replaced next year, and that the defense is stout, but faded heartily against Wisconsin, and that next year’s recruiting class is strong, but the commitments are wavering. If I were trying to prove a point about football, or any sport, to a friend, I’d go to the stats. I’d have information at my disposal. But I’m terrifically under-read in Penn State faculty and student accomplishments. What message does that send?
So that week I paid a little more attention. When a friend sent me a New York Times article about a new community store in my hometown, Saranac Lake, NY, I was proud to see it included a study from two Penn State economists, Stephan Goetz and David Fleming, about locally owned businesses that help promote greater income growth than their larger, non-local counterparts.
And once I started looking, Penn State was everywhere. Associate professor at Penn State Altoona, Steve Sherrill’s novel The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break has been optioned by Pixar. While reading the New York Times’ Op-Ed by Micheal Bérubé, the Paterno Family Professor in Literature and Director and of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, I learned, again late to the party, that in 2011 based on “20 qualitative measures from 2006, including faculty research productivity, completion rates of degrees, student support, faculty and student diversity, and one rating on faculty opinions on reputation,” the National Research Council ranked many of Penn State’s PhD programs among the nation’s best. According to the Penn State press release, Anthropology ranked no. 1 (followed by Duke, Harvard and Stanford); Spanish no. 3 (only behind Yale and Brown); Sociology no. 4 (only behind Princeton, Penn and two different programs at Harvard); and English, my department, no. 5 (behind only Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Michigan). This is all happening at this university.
A Milton S. Hershey Medical Center research lab run by Dr. Craig Meyers has identified a virus — adeno-associated virus type 2, or AAV2 — that could kill cancer. The lab infected groups of cervical cancer cells with AAV2, harvested the cells and waited. A week later the cancer cells were dead. They collected other types of cancer samples, including breast cancer. Each time, a week later, the cancer cells died. The lab infected mice that had human breast cancer tumors with AAV2; they found the tumors liquefied. Next step, pre-clinical testing before applying to the FDA for human testing.
With my head hung in response to these horrific allegations and heartrending inactions, I’m proud of this university, and just as I write and publish on a small level while teaching here, I’m pledging to pay closer attention to the bevy of fantastic faculty, staff and student achievements that over the years have helped build a place that is, yes, football, but more so an academic idea, a grand collection of ideas. This plan, if you could call it that, is not novel or elegant or life-changing; it’s a simple means of reminding me — and in turn, my students — of the foundation of this big, roiling place that I think I know, but am only just being introduced to.
My students wrote early in the semester about finding their place on such a big campus. The overall solution seemed to be to get involved, join a club, intramurals. To connect. One student categorized this as “making the university feel smaller.” Everything over the past few weeks has made the university feel so damn big: 52 counts of sexual assault; all those faceless victims marked by numbers; the justified firings; the news trucks seemingly equipped for a war zone; the student demonstrations. But the University has always been big; inevitably it is that massive stadium on the edge of campus and the edge of farmland. It is the unadorned navy jersey with white trim. That’s what we see on television. We all get it, the metaphor, or the real thing. As I applaud the announcement, and hopefully the follow-through, of President Erickson’s Five Points plan focusing on administrative transparency, and the imperative outside investigations — ideally conducted completely independently of the University — I’m going to try to do as some of my students practice, and focus smaller, more purposely to where the academic action is. The science labs, the vocal performance rooms, the stacks in the library. Two people talking over coffee. Chalk on a chalkboard. The university is founded on ideas, I tell my students. And thinking in ideas is the grandest thing we can do. It is grander than anything.
About the Author: Casey Wiley’s essays and stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Pindledyboz, and The Emerson Review, among others. He teaches at Penn State University and is working on a book about everyday people trying to be professionally funny.