My first day teaching at Penn State, two years ago, I walk into my advanced fiction seminar and encounter a sea of college sweats: fifteen students, twelve in sweats— five Penn State hoodies and t-shirts, a Phillies hoodie, a Happy Valley hoodie, a Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt, a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, a Kenyon tee. I ask myself, What’s this about product labeling?
In the coming days, I notice sweats, sweats everywhere, collegiate apparel lining shop windows in stores up and down College Avenue, sweats a uniform to such degree that I see a kid dressed in sweats top to bottom plus a tie, worn with no apparent irony. In context of what everyone around him is wearing, he looks perfectly suited for a job interview. I speculate that perhaps this susceptibility for uniform has something to do with the strength of the Church in these parts— this is Amish country, after all. There is perhaps a culture of uniformity, a place for sports to easily fill in for Sunday tradition.
As the semester moves along, though, I discover that the base gear of sweats does not preclude outlandish fashion choices. The Kenyon tee kid also often wears a frog knitted cap with eyes protruding from the top, and someone else has a lip ring and fire tattoo flames licking up her arm. The students turn out to be the kind of motley collection of misfits that congregate to the sidelines of academic culture at any university. They are learning to construct their identities. There is a poet, a manic-depressive, a gay guy with an aggressive lisp, another guy who turns out to be also gay, but in the closet.
I come to think of these students as the contingent on campus who are not the joiners, but the opposite of joiners. Joiners and haters, my friends and I used to divide the world when I was in high school— the irony not lost on us that to be a hater you had to join something too. The world seemed divided, though, between Us and not-Us, those of us who would rather not join even if we were drawn to others who also didn’t want to join.
Like many people in my profession, I always considered myself among the “not-Us.” This probably happened because I was bad at sports. I never got picked for the team— something about my astigmatism. In a primal sort of way, isn’t it just sports that designates a life among either the joiners or the haters? Picked for the team: joiners. Not picked: haters.
Was, then, Penn State, because of sports, a place where an inordinate percentage of joiners congregated? Among a culture of joiners, could there still be haters?
One day the poet looks up at me from an article we are discussing in Poets & Writers magazine about MFA creative writing programs and their rankings. She says, “It just really bothers me that Michigan’s program is ranked higher than Penn State’s.”
I look at her. I think I follow her reasoning. She’s a poet, not a joiner, and therefore I believe that we implicitly understand each other in all matters. “Well,” I say, in my most patient, instructive tone, “Michigan has always been a top-five MFA program.”
“No,” she says, “I just hate that it’s Michigan.”
“But Michigan has always been a top MFA program,” I repeat. I don’t get it, I realize as I say this.
“But it’s Michigan…”
The students are looking at me as if I’m dumb, and then I do get it. At Penn State even the non-joiners are joining. But aren’t we all really joiners of something— MFA culture, poetry, whatever it is that we’re against. The lines are blurry between joining and not joining. Identity construction is about being a joiner and a hater at the same time: I am this; I am not that.
The terms us and we have often genuinely confounded me. The first time I hear it in the context of Us, and not-Us, is in 1975. My mother is driving our clunky 1964 Volvo, which is now horribly out of fashion, which I know because kids at my school tease me about it. She’ll ditch it within the year and move us to the city. She explains to me that “we” are in Vietnam.
I hate that girl in that moment, and I think that she is young. But she is something else, someone lost, a joiner whose net has just been torn open, who is floating armless in a sea of unmapped water.
“No we’re not. We’re in the Volvo,” I say back. Who is us? The kids teasing me at school? It’s an early outsider moment for me.
More recently, a friend says to me, “I just don’t want a mechanic in Nebraska losing his job to someone in China. Our jobs are fleeing overseas.”
“Why should I care more about the mechanic in Nebraska than the guy in China?” I retort. “I’m a New Yorker. I grew up around more Chinese people than Midwestern white guys.”
“Because he’s part of our economy.”
“So’s the guy in China.”
This is an especially confusing conversation for me because this friend happens to be Chinese-American. “How’s the guy in Nebraska more ’you’ than the guy in China?” I ask him.
“He is,” he says. “He’s American.”
Last Tuesday night, I walk by Old Main, the historic center of the campus. There is a rally on the steps. Everyone is wearing blue and white. Earlier I saw a new t-shirt manufactured for the game this coming Saturday, which Joe Paterno will not be coaching, for the first time in 46 seasons. It says “Indiana: Blue Out.”
My first season here, I had to Google the term “White Out” during my first month and, two weeks later, “Tie-Dye Monday” to discover that these referred to a team pep tradition. Everyone rooting for Penn State gets dressed up in the same clothes, sort of like the Ronettes.
On Tuesday at the rally, it is raining, and it has been rumored that Paterno has just been fired. University President Graham Spanier will be fired tomorrow night. There is a pall on campus. The recent scandal has depressed an already low-to-the-ground mood— it’s the twelfth week of a sixteen-week semester. Midterms have come and gone, with barely a pause leading into finals and the upcoming too-short Thanksgiving break, which we all know is really just a moment to take stock of how badly we have fallen behind. Fall is paradoxically the time that everything starts and that Next Year looms large. The beginning is just the beginning of the end. You start to die the day you’re born, I have been thinking.
I am not sure exactly what to expect of the rally. Is it Pro Joe, or Anti Joe? It’s early enough into the scandal fallout that we really don’t know which way things will turn. A patriarch has fallen. Will his sons defend him or betray him? Is it a campus of Brutuses or Marc Antonys? I stand at the back of the crowd, of about a hundred students, and overhear whimpers of contempt and outrage— Marc Antonys. “Do you want to sign a petition to bring back Joe?” someone mutters. “I already did.” someone responds. Someone says “Uh huh” every time the word Penn State is uttered. Up on the steps, students are handing off the mic to one another: “We are— Penn State!”; and “We’ll always be Penn State”; and, “They can’t take Penn State away from us— we still have our identity.”
I can’t find any substance in what they are saying, and this further lowers my mood. It takes me a while to understand the magnitude of what is being communicated here. A girl on the steps takes the microphone and says, “We don’t care about the lives of eight people. We are Penn State!” The crowd shouts back the call-and-response team cheer. We are…! Penn State…!
It’s an irrational, content-less bleat of confusion. I hate that girl in that moment, and I think that she is young. But she is something else, someone lost, a joiner whose net has just been torn open, who is floating armless in a sea of unmapped water.
When I get home I email back and forth with a colleague, who writes in despair about “the jingoistic allegiance to some feeling they have about the cult of Paterno, and the cult of football.” She likens the protest to a Nazi Youth march. The next night will be the riot, and I will visit, and I will notice more inchoate rumbling and confused rage.
It’s two years since my first fall semester, and I am teaching the same course, advanced fiction, to the same type of motley collection of misfits who dress in college gear embellished with a quirky overlay on non-joiner fashion paraphernalia. I notice an argyle sweater, a Boy George Cap, a shaved nape.
A student is helping organize a candlelight vigil to call attention to child abuse. A student has written in her blog: I feel anger, fatigue, dismissal, denial, distancing, horror, sadness, numbness, interest, boredom, pissed off, stunned, unaware, over aware, defensive, humbled, betrayed.… [I] am grieving.
The students say they are pissed off that the pro Joe contingent is getting so much press. “There was a vigil— but it’s the loud obnoxious thing that makes the news,” says one. “Eight people’s lives are destroyed and we’re still worried about our identity?” says another. “I watched the riot on CNN in disbelief,” says another. “They can’t get camera crews into our apartments showing us doing nothing.” Says one student: “Why did they decide 10pm at night was the best time to fire the president of the university? The mind of the enemy mob doesn’t work that well under pressure.”
Living in Happy Valley has given me a taste of what feels so good about joining, what we haters have been missing all our lives. I am in fact appalled that anyone could think that a perceived attack on their ill-defined identity could be more important that a ghoulish crime perpetrated against eight innocent children. The Onion got it best, early on in the scandal:
“Describing the downfall of Paterno as ‘clearly the most devastating thing to come out of the sex scandal,’ outlets from ESPN to USA Today asked Sandusky’s victims if, while being forced to engage in oral and anal sex with a man 40 to 50 years their senior, their primary fear was for Paterno’s reputation…”
I think I also understand though, a little better than I would have two years ago, the mixed emotions that could lead the non-thinking Pro Joe-ers and even the thinking non-joiners to feel vulnerable after having given in to the womblike warmth of being a part of a thing. As my student wrote, all the contradictory emotions—anger, denial, horror, sadness, betrayal, defensiveness—coalesce into an inarticulate grief, an inability to understand mixed with a desire to do so, mixed with a childlike wish that the stunning, difficult reality could be simply subsumed into an amniotic bubble. Otherwise, one must see that the thing is not at all the kind of reliable safe zone it once seemed to be.