Alma Mater

I Went to Penn State—But Don’t Pity Me

I never cheered for the football team. But this week, I found solace with my fellow alumni.

I’ve always been a pretty bad Penn Stater, as Penn Staters go.

I’ve never purchased a single piece of Penn State clothing. The only sweatshirt I own is a ripped hand-me-down from someone who lived with me on the fourth floor of Runkle Hall at University Park during freshman year in 1989. I haven’t taken it out of the plastic bin under my bed in 10 years. At least.

I only know the words to the alma mater because I wrote an article about it when I worked at the Penn State alumni magazine back in the day.

I’ve had my picture taken with the Nittany Lion statue—that shrine to the mascot of the university’s once-sterling football program, now ensconced in scandal and in danger of being suspended—exactly twice: once during grad school when my grandmothers came to visit, and once when my husband (also a Penn Stater) and I were driving through State College with our kids and thought they might have fun climbing on a big, slippery marble lion.

In fact, in all my years at Penn State—getting my BA, getting my MFA, working—I attended one football game. One. It was freezing. And there were so many people sitting so close together. And they were very loud. I thought the whole experience was pretty close to being in a circle of hell.

It’s not that I didn’t like Penn State. I had some smart professors, I learned about narrative structure, I figured out I preferred vodka over gin, and I made some of my best friends in the world. Even so, I’ve never been the type to open up a conversation with, “I went to Penn State!” in the way my more enthusiastic Penn State friends do. I just never bought into that whole “We are...Penn State!” thing.

Which was why I was so surprised at what happened yesterday.

I could barely keep up with all the articles about Penn State that had been shared like a bad flu on Facebook over the past 24 hours—stories about head football coach Joe Paterno and former president Graham Spanier (both of whom I’ve met), and the shocking ways in which they failed to act when faced with evidence that Jerry Sandusky was abusing children on campus. I clicked on every one that popped up in my newsfeed, feeling as sick to my stomach as I felt last November when the story first broke. In one link, a blogger declared that Penn State could only fix this by basically dismantling the football program. A few commenters responded by asking how that would do any good. A woman punched back at those naysayers:

“God, the idiocy of penn state people is amazing.”

If I could have, I would have reached through my computer and slapped her across the face. How dare she, I thought to myself, and then began pounding out a nasty comment, high-horsing it about what’s really idiotic—damning hundreds of thousands of Penn Staters, like me. As if all of us were in that shower with that little boy, and all of us decided not to do anything about it, and all of us are still so blinded by blue and white that we can’t see the real horror here.

Yet, just as I was about to post my rant, I hesitated. Not because I didn’t feel the need to jump into the fray, but because I did. Where did this sudden “We are...Penn State!” solidarity come from?

I realized it then. During the past nine months, I’ve said “I went to Penn State” more than I have in the 19 years since I graduated. I’ve used it as an explanation: this is why I’m not participating in your snarky conversation about Mike McQueary. This is why I have tears in my eyes. This is why I can’t stop checking my Facebook app even though we’re at the community pool on this lovely Thursday in July. All I had to say was “I went to Penn State,” as if to say, “I’m one of them.” And people would reply, “Oh,” as if to say, “You poor thing.”

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But, for the past nine months, I’ve needed to be “one of them.” They get it. They understand the shock, the shame, the betrayal I’ve been feeling. I had to reach into that fold, which I'd never folded into before, in order to have people to grieve with and to be disappointed with and to be uncontrollably pissed off with as I’ve been since that report was released yesterday.

I remember calling Lynne, one of my best friends from Penn State, when the whole thing blew up last fall. She’s a good Penn Stater, as Penn Staters go. She’s got the season tickets and the sweatshirts and the beer cozies and the pom poms and the blue paint that she uses to draw paws on her cheeks during games. We couldn’t be more different as far as our feelings about Penn State are concerned. But we both were saying the same thing: “I’m just so sad.”

People on the outside don’t understand. They think “the idiocy of Penn State people is amazing.” It took the lowest point in the history of Penn State to make me understand the significance of “We are...Penn State.” Maybe that is idiotic. But it’s true.

Yesterday afternoon, I saw someone in a parking lot with a PSU bumper sticker on their car.

I stopped and did something I wouldn’t have done 10 months ago.

“I went to Penn State,” I said.

“Me too.”

“Tough day,” I said.

“Yeah. Tough day.”