Early on Thanksgiving morning, I drove down an eerily silent College Avenue in State College, Pennsylvania, to deliver a couple of pies to the community kitchen in my church basement. The town felt strangely somber. Streets were empty, students and many of the faculty members—more than half the borough’s population—gone. Anyone who had an excuse to get out was relieved to do so. Nevertheless, an NBC news van sat perched at the edge of campus like a vulture, as if even on that still morning a savory bit of news might break.
As a Penn State faculty member who has never set foot in Beaver Stadium or watched a football game of any sort on television, I’ll just say that I came to this place for another reason. But football money has funded a substantial portion of our library’s holdings. It has endowed two professorships, one in my own department. And thanks to the influx of cash that football season brings to the region each fall, it has made Centre County a better place to live.
In other words, across the university and Happy Valley, we’re all aware that we will be sharing the consequences of these crimes and cover-ups for a very long time.
What can a person do when the actions of a powerful one or few ruin things for so many? All I could think to do that morning was what I did the year before on Thanksgiving morning: rise early, make coffee, roll out crusts and whisk fillings, slide the pumpkin and pecan pies into the oven, and then drive them over to Saint Andrew’s.
Like my students who were eager to identify with Penn State when its stock was up, I must consider the price of collective success and my own willingness to buy into it. Now, those students worry that the brand has gone bad. That fast, a university’s winning reputation has been wrecked by willful evasions and strange manipulations and images of hooligans rioting in our streets.
I think of my father’s chagrin after working for more than 30 years for a major corporation that in the late 1990s turned out to be rotten at the top. His retirement a few years too early was embittered by a sense of betrayal at the hands of a company that had once made him proud. I think of those associated with church organizations publicly shamed by corrupt or irresponsible leaders, or the happy-looking families undone by foolish moves.
It is easy for me to tell my students to use their words and their heads when they would prefer to take to the streets. Those are the English professor’s stock sentiments. But what shall I do with my own disappointment and disgust?
The answer came without much thought on Thanksgiving morning: the pies, the drive over to St. Andrew’s. In dark times, we fall back on those practices that a lifetime of practice has taught us. When words fail or fail to come, meaning and comfort spring from the most ordinary, elemental means: our work, small observances. This is the quiet spirit of Advent.
I will stick around when the TV vans have gone away, just as my father worked on for several years while his company painfully stuttered to a halt. I will continue to teach these kids who will have some difficult questions to answer in job interviews for a few years.
Driving back to my home in Bellefonte—a town of 6,000 where the preliminary hearings for Jerry Sandusky will be staged this Tuesday morning—I felt a rush of gratitude for sunlight on the forested ridgeline, my car two pies lighter. My heart felt lighter, too, with the satisfaction that comes from making something, from giving a gift that will vanish before the sun goes down, from doing one tiny thing I can respect.