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We are…?

November 13, 2011 \am\30 9:24 am

I have put myself in front of this screen a handful of times over the past week, only to write a few words before shutting the laptop and wandering away. I don’t know what I want to say, and I’m all too conscious of the advice I give to my writing students: don’t try to write when strong, confusing emotions have you in their grip.

And yet, I also think about Joan Didion’s wisdom:  I don’t know what I think until I write it down.

I want to know what I think about the fact that my home and my workplace are now the subject of nearly every news headline I read. I want to know what I think about the fact that I work for an institution whose leadership has failed us in the most egregious, heinous way possible: by turning a blind eye to the rape of children. I want to know what I think about the fact that many of my colleagues, friends, people I admire and trust identify so strongly with this thing people call “Penn State Pride,” which as far as I can tell, doesn’t necessarily connect with football fandom, although for many it surely does.

I want to know what I think of that word, “pride.”

*

I am not comfortable speaking for anyone else. The range of reactions swirling around this scandal is enormous and mine is but one messy, incoherent example. No. No spokesperson, I. This is part of the reason I cringe to hear and have never participated in the We are…Penn State cheer. I have a hard enough time figuring out what *I* am on a given day. I am not going to presume to know who you are.

I am tempted to just link you to Dave Housley’s poignant reflection (he is also a townie) on the Barrelhouse blog, or Michael Weinreb’s essay over at Grantland about growing up in State College and be done with it.  They both do such a good job capturing something important and real about how people feel here.

But this entire scandal is marked by silence and maybe adding one more voice to the chorus is not a bad thing, even if that voice sounds by turns quavering, small, scream-shaped and monstrous.

*

I live in State College, Pennsylvania and work in the English department at Penn State.  Unless you live on the moon, you know what has befallen this community over the last week. Or, more precisely, what has been befalling since 1998, and has just this week been exposed under the scrutinizing, searing light of day.

I feel exhausted by the task in front of me–the obligation (which I am simultaneously feeling and resisting) that I record this moment because I am a writer in the trenches for a change. I am close enough that I will be able to hear from my backyard the football crowds cheering in the stadium for today’s final home game of the season, and close enough that I could hear the sirens that screamed toward Beaver Avenue’s riots the night the football coach was dispatched from his 46-year tenure.

I am that close. I am maybe too close.

On the other hand, though I have lived here for 12 years, I have never felt part of the Blue and White culture, never really felt the closeness of pride. Partly this is because sports are just not part of my personal lexicon. Partly too because I have always felt profoundly uncomfortable with the notion of group identity. I realize this is not a very nuanced perspective and that if I were being more thoughtful, I’d be able to list any number of groups with which I do comfortably, proudly identify.

*

In 1999, I moved to State College from New Haven, CT where I had, for four years, been immersed in a thriving and intimate writing community at Southern Connecticut State University. When I found out that I had been awarded a fellowship to attend Penn State’s MFA program, people around me were thrilled and impressed. One of my colleagues there was a PSU alum and his response was especially ecstatic. I remember his eyes full of spark and dance as he rhapsodized about how perfect a place State College is—the perfect college town, he called it—how happy is “Happy Valley,” how much he loved the four years he spent there. I was nonplussed. I was coming to Penn State because they offered me the most generous funding package (thank you, football revenue).

My plan was to ignore the football culture as best I could, get my degree, and go.

The ignoring I’ve got down to a science. But not the going. I have now lived here longer than any other place. I met my husband here. My children were born at the hospital up the street. Both of my labor rooms overlooked the football stadium.

This is home.

*

The only time I’ve ever been inside Beaver Stadium, it was empty but for a tour group. I had been hired by a local paper to do a piece on town and gown attractions, and did my best to pick spots that I thought might be overlooked by visitors. The Frost Entomological Museum on campus. The Arboretum. The vintage boutique downtown. The shop that restores used bicycles. The tea café. The comic book shop. I realized at some point that my abject disinterest in sports was creating an obvious bias in the piece, so I decided to stop being a jerk and include a bit about the All-Sports Museum, which is attached to the stadium, as well.  I knew I needed to be, wanted to be fair and balanced, though I will say honestly that the idea of writing a piece about this town and this school without mentioning sport at all was deliciously tempting. Ridiculous and impossible to pull off—it would never have gotten past my editor and it wouldn’t have made for an accurate depiction of this place—but tempting all the same.

*

I rent a duplex in same neighborhood, just north of campus and the stadium, as the football coach. Between his backyard and my backyard sprawls the oak-shaded park where we have had each of my son’s six birthday parties.  I guess you could call us neighbors, though I’ve never had a conversation with him. As a grad student, I once opened my door into his while loading groceries into my car. He commented that I sure had a lot of bags.  That story—because if you live here, you must have a JoePa story– is the first one I would tell to elsewhere friends who would ask, expectantly, excitedly, if I’d ever met him.

Later, I would rhapsodize about how he built us a library and helped create a Classics program.

I have a new story, now.

*

This semester I am teaching freshman composition. Our course has the special designation of also functioning as a freshman seminar for students who come to Penn State with undeclared majors. It’s part of my job to orient them, get them comfortable with the transition from high school to college.  Expose them to the many resources available to them here.  When I learned I’d be teaching this course, my immediate thought was to direct it as far from football as I could. This was the same year budget cuts almost did away with our MFA program and a bill that proposed a $20 million cut to the NEA did not get through the House of Representatives. And only two years since Penn State received Princeton Review’s #1 Party School ranking, and NPR’s This American Life featured us in a piece that was fair and balanced but very hard to listen to because it got us so very right. Thus, English 15: The Arts at Penn State was born with the idea that we were going to re-define the culture and categorization of Penn State together.

We are…a thriving arts community?

We are…more than just a party school?

We are…more.

*

We are not sports fans.  Two weeks ago, when the furnace guy had to come out on Saturday afternoon, he asked, hopefully, if we were watching the game. When I said no, he was incredulous.

No? Really?

No. I’m sorry. We’re an odd family around here, I guess.

*

The last time I saw my students, their university’s president and their beloved football coach had not yet been fired. They were angry and confused and wanted to know why the assistant football coach who witnessed Jerry Sandusky raping a ten year old child in the showers didn’t kill him on the spot.

They asked me, As a parent, what would you have done?

It’s easy to say, I would have killed him on the spot.

It’s easy to say that because what we all want right now is the ability to say something unequivocally.

To be sure about something.

*

We are sure we condemn the rape of a child. Of so many children.

We are sure we condemn the complicity of those who turned a blind eye.

We feel shattered and angry and exhausted already by the long road back to integrity and safety and surety that lies in front of us.

*

My teacher, Vivian Gornick, would tell me that it’s my obligation as a writer to make sense of the raw material of my experience for my reader.

*

It’s game day and, as always, I woke up knowing I would need to coordinate my errands in such a way as to avoid the traffic to the stadium.  It’s the final home game, and for the last 12 years, this would normally mean relief for me. I don’t have to have to deal with football again until next fall. But this year is different, for the obvious reasons and also for one more:  today is the first time I have ever watched part of a Penn State football game. We spent the afternoon at a friend’s birthday party, and the players (our students) on the television screen kept us eerie, quiet company in the background– behind and below conversations about the very field, both literal and metaphoric, on which all of us who live in this community play.

My son climbs into my lap. At six years old he weighs 50 pounds and stands only a foot shorter than I. I think about how he will likely one day have the right physique to play this particular sport and then immediately follow that with a fast prayer that he will never want to. We watch the screen together.

Who’s winning, Mama? The red guys or the blue ones?

The red ones.

Are we the red ones?

Nope, we’re blue.

Oh. We are?

Yep. We are.

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9 Comments
  1. Robin Elizabeth Sampson permalink
    November 13, 2011 \am\30 10:21 am 10:21 am

    Sheila,

    Thanks for finally keeping that laptop open a bit. This was good.

  2. Sheila Squillante permalink
    November 13, 2011 \am\30 10:46 am 10:46 am

    Thank you for reading, Robin!

  3. November 13, 2011 \pm\30 12:16 pm 12:16 pm

    Beautiful writing. Thank you.

    • Sheila Squillante permalink
      November 13, 2011 \pm\30 4:19 pm 4:19 pm

      Thank you!

  4. Erica permalink
    November 13, 2011 \pm\30 1:45 pm 1:45 pm

    Such a wonderful piece! Thank you.

    • Sheila Squillante permalink
      November 13, 2011 \pm\30 4:19 pm 4:19 pm

      Thank you, Erica!

  5. David Koehn permalink
    November 13, 2011 \pm\30 4:22 pm 4:22 pm

    Group identity is always problematic. It seemongly always reduces individual accountability. The conversation always gets squirrelly because of the exceptions we decide to make: I am Catholic but am pro-choice. I am an American put don’t believe in military force. I am a Penn State alum but…. Group identity feels like a kind of mental laziness and even worse seems to obligate one to defend the group identity even when it is not necessarily what one would choose to do if the group identity weren’t so integral. Just a thought …

  6. November 14, 2011 \am\30 9:40 am 9:40 am

    I miss you girlie. Even though we are further away, we have also felt a sense of sadness and emptiness (piece up on our blog too). Sigh. This is a lovely piece – thanks for sharing townie…

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