The Penn State Thing

I served Joe Paterno a grilled Sticky once. I worked as a waitress at The Diner. He came in one morning and sat at the counter. My coworkers excitedly pointed him out, “THAT’S JOE PATERNO! You have JoePa in your section!”

“Yeah. So?” I scoffed.

Back then, he was just a customer. I didn’t give a shit about football. The only reason I knew who he was at all was because of hundreds of cardboard JoePas I’d seen in windows all over Penn State. I didn’t care about football at all. I only wanted Penn State to win because of the tips. Sad, drunk fans left terrible tips.

Joe was just another customer.

The Penn State Thing.

When it happened, when everything unfolded, my emotions were all over the place. At first I was in shock. Then that wore off and I became obsessed. I read everything. I dug up Sports Illustrated articles from 1998 looking for hints, something. I read it all. And I tried to write about it. The more I read the more I wanted to write about it. But I bit my tongue. There would have been some pretty intense posts had I let myself write about it last week. First of all, I would have stated that I don’t agree with the firing of Joe Paterno. And I would have backed up why and that would have started a few fights. But I knew it was too soon. I knew that I would have written something I would have regretted. My emotions were raw footage; I needed an editor first.

Things have settled down a bit since then.

But not before I canceled everything.

I was supposed to meet up with a friend and her new baby. I canceled. I was supposed to meet a few moms at the playground. Canceled that too. I was supposed to go out for drinks. Canceled. I even canceled a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t want to do anything. I couldn’t muster up the energy. I didn’t want to see anyone. I wasn’t going to be very good company. So, I quit. Everything.

Last Thursday night, as I combed through even more articles and (stupidly) through comments sections, something finally occurred to me: I am depressed.

I don’t live with depression. I have written that before. I go through ups and downs like most people. My downs are manageable, and they don’t come out of nowhere; there is almost always a catalyst. My miscarriage was a catalyst. Our move to San Francisco, another. My infertility, yet another massive catalyst.

So last Thursday when I realized I was experiencing depression, I knew right away the catalyst was The Penn State Thing. But I couldn’t figure out why it was hitting me so very hard.

A Bit Of History

I moved to State College from Raleigh, North Carolina when I was 15-years-old. I didn’t want to move even though we’d been moving my whole life. I can safely say now that I was headed down a very wrong path in Raleigh, but I didn’t want to leave. I considered State College boring, lame, pathetic, loser-ish—all normal angsty teenage things. No one worth a damn could possibly live in a town called State College. And who names a town STATE COLLEGE? What a stupid name for a place to say you’re from.

I met a boy. A boy who broke the shit out of my heart. REM helped me get over that.

I got a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. I got fired a month later.

I made some friends. We’d drive to the Altoona Salvation Army, load up on Taco Bell and cheap cardigans. Nirvana’s Bleach was our soundtrack.

I got a job at The Diner where I would continute to work for 8 years.

I graduated from high school, something I probably wouldn’t have done had we stayed in Raleigh. Moving to State College saved my ass in so many ways. Who knows what would have happened to me had we stayed in Raleigh. I’ll leave it at that.

I was accepted into Penn State. I declared Philosophy as my major. (Ha!)

I got a second job at The Nittany Lion Inn. Eventually I got promoted and started working more important, smaller gatherings for high-ranking Penn State officials. (Incidentally, I waited on a few of the men involved in last week’s scandal.)

I declared Graphic Design as my major.

I made a lot of friends. Friends I still call friends.

I could sit here and recall every last memory, they are endless, but that’s like telling people about a dream. Boring. And I’m probably no different from anyone else when it comes to memories. But the backdrop for my memories are very much intertwined with the fact that they took place in State College. And at some point during my twenties, after graduating from Penn State, discovering (and loving) college football, and getting a “real” job, I realized something: State College is where I am from.

State College, y’all. What a dumb name for a town, right? Even the talking heads from last week’s media frenzy said it with confusion—like, who names a town State College?

I don’t know, Talking Head. But that’s where I’m from.

The Scandal and Its Aftermath

News broke. Several boys were sexually abused by a Penn State football coach. This, while not yet proven in a court of law, is likely the case. I’ve read the 23-page indictment. I believe it to be true.

Then more news came out about who may have known what and how they didn’t do enough (or nothing) to stop it. Several people were fired. Others quit. It was a shitstorm, a State College shitstorm. And the media ate it up! When 1,000 Penn State students rioted in downtown State College, the media went crazy for it even though that number represents the smallest sliver of Penn State’s student body. Suddenly every student, past and present, was guilty of some of the most heinous crimes known to man. Online, people began referring to Penn State as “Pedophile University”. People demanded the football team forfeit their upcoming game even though those kids have nothing to do with any of it. People slammed the whole lot of us. All of Penn State was guilty of something. Anything. Whatever. It didn’t matter. Fuck Penn State!

Or so it seemed to this wounded alumnus.

Twitter exploded with finger-pointing. Everyone had something to say about it. Those involved in the scandal were guilty as charged. So much for innocent until proven guilty. Hang the lot of them! For many, Paterno was the worst of all because of his allegiance to kids, because of his otherwise stellar history. He had a lot further distance to fall and a name.

Believe me, I don’t blame anyone for reacting with such intense outrage; Sandusky, and the people who allegedly did nothing to stop him, warrant your anger. I get it. I really do. It’s when you add it all up, and start to see every reaction as one big one, well, that’s when it looks really ugly.

And I couldn’t escape it.

Here’s the deal, State College has been our idealistic little town for a decade and Penn State plays a huge part in that ideal. Toby Joe and I wanted to raise our boys there. I very nearly got a job at Penn State two years ago. If it hadn’t been for the fact I would have to relocate from New York City, it would have been mine. State College has been on our radar for as long as we’ve been together. It has been our town, our little slice of heaven, an ideal. Hell, we’ve even been carrying around our dead cat’s ashes because (and I quote), “State College is his home. That’s where he’d want to finally rest.” (Go ahead! Commence with the eye-rolling!)

Basically, no matter how bad things got elsewhere, we always had State College. We knew we could make it in State College. It was safe. It was home. Even though in the back of our minds we knew we’d probably never return, it was home.

On Tuesday, a friend asked me how I was feeling about the whole scandal, putting aside my emotions regarding the crimes committed and the firing of Joe Paterno (which, I will go on the record with saying, I don’t agree with) I told her it feels like my town was bombed. My idealistic hometown no longer exists. The place I wanted to return to, the place I wanted to move my boys to, is gone. Just like that. Gone. And every time I think to explain my feelings, the thoughts come out sounding laughable, absurdly so. It’s a town, after all. Just a town. Why so dramatic?

I don’t know. But I do know it’s egotistical. This terrible story has nothing to do with me yet I’m making it personal somehow. And perhaps I’m putting State College on a pedestal. But it’s hard not to when it’s home to so many of my best memories. And doesn’t everyone have someplace they fantasize about when times are tough?

State College was my safe-haven even if it wasn’t.

In past last two weeks, I have received five emails from different business located in State College begging me, a prior customer, to come visit. Last night, I got one from my high school letting me know my 20-year reunion is next spring and that I should plan ahead! Because rooms fill up. These emails just made me feel worse. Because I know they are being sent by people who are facing unknown hardships. They are uncertain about their future. And they have their tails between their legs because their hometown was emotionally leveled. A place most people hadn’t even heard of before last week is now known as one of the ugliest, most horribly secretive places in America.

I’m even mourning the businesses of Penn State.

It feels like my town is gone, y’all. And Sandusky had a lot to do with it. But the media frenzy is to blame as well. State College is wounded and it will take years, maybe decades, for it to regain what it’s lost. The town will suffer. The university will take a huge hit. The football team is as good as done… at least for a while.

This is far from over. And my skin is thin right now. And the town I’ve been idealizing all these years, the safe place to raise my boys, it’s not there anymore. And that breaks my heart a little bit. I feel a little empty.


  1. WOW! I wish I could have stated my feelings as well as that!


  2. I’m so sorry you’re hurting over this whole mess. Hugs to you.


  3. Thank you for helping me “get it”, and have some empathy and understanding where I just didn’t before. I didn’t make any of the comments you saw out there–that kind of anonymous, negative mobbing isn’t my thing–but I self-righteously thought those things. I’m sorry, and thank you again for making a post that made me take a step back and think.


  4. Mihow,
    As one who knows about the scandal and has some not-so-nice opinions about the persons involved, I will say this: I never once thought a nasty thought about State College or Penn State or the football team itself. My mentor – a track star at Penn State in the 1970’s – won an award this past weekend at a national conference and his video montage described his athletic career at Penn State, but I never once cringed with the thought of what happened there. This media frenzy will blow over…not all of us watch or listen to the talking heads…State College will be whole again someday and will be your haven once again.


  5. Thank you for writing about this and for sharing your feelings. (I read it the other day when you posted and just haven’t had time to come back to it with a thoughtful brain.)

    My heart goes out to you. In fact as I read what you wrote again just now, my heart breaks for you — and all the people who love your town and the school — all over again.


  6. The State College that you remember is still idyllic and I’m sure the things you love still exist and you could go back to them. It sucks to have something idyllic knocked sideways but, since it’s a town not a person you love, I think you’ll be able to find your way back. I hope so. I’m sorry that this whole thing will probably come back up in unexpected ways and hurt you for a while until the legal story has wound up.

    I’d like to hear more about why you don’t think Paterno should have been fired.


  7. Thank for writing this. I’m from State College, too, and went to Penn State (the majority of my family still lives there). I grew up and lived there for 20 years. This happened in my community. What happened is unforgiveable. It’s heartbreaking, and it has been hard to explain why, even to people who just went to Penn State.
    I’m going back for Thanksgiving tomorrow. I wonder how the town will feel to me now.


  8. First, I’m sorry you’re feeling badly and I hope you’re able to work your way out of the depression soon. I want to make it clear that while I have a perspective on the events that is different from yours, I am not trying to trivialize your feelings. I know that any number of things that may seem small to others can trigger depression that is real and damaging.

    If and when you feel ready to process this more, it would be really interesting if you would write a bit about your opinion of the firing and how the university handled the situation as a whole. From the perspective of an outsider who is not connected to a university athletics community in this way (I’m proud of my alma mater and am a huge fan of my local professional sports teams, but the reactions of the PSU community have been really foreign to my experience), I’m in the same boat as another commenter above–I’m sorry you’ve had a rough time with this, but the town of State College didn’t commit any crimes so hopefully you’ll be able to regain positive and safe feelings about your hometown. Any insight you might share on this event after processing it further would be really interesting to read.

    Please take care of yourself and feel better soon.


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