Friday, July 13, 2012

We Are Penn State

I've been thinking about my childhood lately.  Things like the storefront one of our neighbors had connected to his house.  Freddie's is where my family went to get Town Talk bread, milk, Dolly Madison treats, penny gum and on special occasions chocolate ice cubes for a nickel.  I was partial to the candy necklaces I could fashionably wear and lick at the same time.  Freddie's had an awesome comic book rack and the cigarettes were kept behind the counter along with aspirin and other things only adults could buy like x-rated mags.  Freddie hung a sheet between the store part of the house and his actual living room  from which emanated the incredible smells of homemade sauce and the sounds of Bonanza.   Sometimes if the curtain blew open just right I could see Mrs. Freddie with a table tray in front of the TV eating her spaghetti. This mixing of worlds fascinated me.
A ways away was the neighborhood fire station which had a big red metal Coke machine.  I loooooved that Coke machine.  The firehouse doors were usually open and kids could take the change they'd collected delivering papers or scavenged from Dad's couch cushions to get an icy cold Coca-Cola sweat dripping down the green sides of the glass, bottle refundable for a nickel,.  Sometimes the firemen who sat smoking on the metal park bench in front would let us climb up onto the truck, hang from the back, put on their helmets, try on their boots and if we were lucky sit in the cab and honk the horn.

We attended the local Catholic School walking with our book bags which were not knapsacks but actual suitcase looking things and metal lunchboxes that scratched our legs as we walked.  My family attended mass on Sunday and my classmates and I went to morning mass on First Fridays and regularly scheduled weekdays.  In my homeroom everyone knew everyone else. We were a group, a collective, special.  It was the same students first grade through eighth.  We knew who would be in the turtle row, the rabbit row, who would get boxed around the ears by the nuns, who would volunteer for extra work.  We felt sorry for the public school students who didn't have the one true faith and collected pennies for the pagan babies in our pint sized milk cartons.  It was familiar and safe.

During the summer we spent our time at the local pool playing with the teenage boys who would pick us up and throw us like sacks of potatoes to splash into the deeper water.  Or  they'd pass us around like dolls from one to one another putting us on their shoulders, jousting with each other to see which  of us would fall first from our perch..  My favorite game was jumping as hard as we could on the diving board for height, distance, momentum and doing cannonballs trying to hit the lifeguard on duty with the splash.  I grew up with a pair of  enormous identical twins, older and desired by the girls who tried to bounce the bolts from the board's sockets and who always inevitably won.

At home we watched Leave it to Beaver, the Little Rascals, Mayberry RFD and Matchgame 76.  We ate dinner as a family, did our homework and were in bed by 9.  Life was simple, I was innocent. 

All  of the above is true.  And not. 

My childhood has a dark and twisty side, a shadow if you will.  There is an underbelly of shit that got stuffed up in the attic, down in the basement, anywhere it could be shoved while my family struggled mightily to maintain an illusion of all is well rather than face reality which scared all of us.  The reality of my childhood is one of love, presence, God and community.  It is also one of abuse, alcoholism, mental illness and cruelty.

I have spent the better part of my adult life struggling to heal from the things stuffed up in the attic and  basement.   On bad days I'm not sure I'll ever be whole.  On good ones I feel joy and gratitude.  I continue to make progress and one bit of wisdom I've gleaned is  my nostalgic recall of the innocence and simplicity of my childhood is fantasy.  Life's complicated.  Good and evil exist side by side.  When I was a kid though the evil was never acknowledged, the elephant in the room.  And because it was not acknowledged or called out of hiding it perpetrated itself. with impunity.   As Edmund Burke once said "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Which brings me to Penn State.  Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Tim Curley et al. stood by passing the buck from one to another while Jerry Sandusky continued to steal from boys who trusted him  as a father figure any hope of a physically, emotionally and spiritually whole and healthy adulthood.  It is also true Penn State espouses academic excellence, personal/social responsibility and the dignity of others as ideals to be upheld and has produced thousands of  graduates, including former football players who have gone on to become solid citizens and to lead moral, upstanding and successful lives.  These things coexist.  Good and evil.  Light and shadow.

Along with thinking about my childhood I've also been wondering if I were the janitor who witnessed Sandusky performing oral sex on a child in the locker room  would I have blown the whistle?   What if I knew it meant the loss of my job?  What if I thought no one would believe me, a janitor at the bottom of the institutional food chain, my word against that of a revered coach?  What if I told myself, surely someone else knew about this and would do something?  What if I feared Sandusky would sue me for libeling him after no one believed me?  Would I have called police?  Would I have intervened?  Would I have had the courage to act?

No one likes looking at evil.  By it's nature it makes good folks want to turn away, run, hide, do nothing and hope someone else will step up to the plate.

I'm afraid that if I were the janitor I would have just kept on walking.  We all have good in us.  We all have a shadow.  I need to look in the mirror and see what is there, unflinching not turning away and accepting what I see.  I need to acknowledge the shadow in me and then pray that by the grace of God I will do the next right thing.  Because what the mirror shows me when I dare to look is.....

We are Penn State.