Students, a loss does not define an individual or a community as a loser. Also, the blessings flowing from being a family sometimes entail burdens, often of an impossible character (at least, a seemingly impossible one) — for example, how to come to terms with how one of our own has been charged with acting shamefully or worse.
I have cut out a photo of a group of students, one of whom is holding up a sign: “We Are STILL Penn State” from the front page of the Nov. 13 Centre Daily Times.
But my attention is forcefully drawn to the face of another student who is almost in the center of the photo (she is dressed in blue, like everyone else around her, another young woman immediately to her left seems to be looking at the woman at the heart of this image). I will keep this photo always, right next to the first birthday cards I received from my first son and, years later, from my second one and other precious mementos. The eyes of this student above her painted cheeks are the saddest I have ever seen.
I want to speak not only to her sadness but also to every other student’s. What I have to say to you is largely a reminder, for as a teacher I learn much from you. You already know, at some level that we have and will continue to define ourselves not by our losses but how we respond to them. We have and will respond to them imaginatively and courageously (the idea of a “Blue Out” is a stunning exercise of moral imagination — just the right act at just the right time). Others cannot define us, as much as some of them might want to do so with their cheap speculation and even cheaper moralism. We have and will hold ourselves accountable in a strict, yet fair way. The viciously negative images some are trying to foist upon all of us will be flattened as effectively as two linemen trying to stop Devon Still from getting to the opposing quarterback; they will be blocked as effectively as Katie Slay or Deja McClendon perfectly timing their jump at the net.
After all (even after all this), we are still Penn State. And Coach Paterno is (until proven otherwise) who he always was, a great coach and a deeply decent but flawed man (he never pretended to be anything more than such a human being). We are defined by how we respond to a loss, not by others jeering at us in a moment of defeat. He taught us this, even if not in quite these words.
The bracing lines from “Allegiances,” a poem by William Stafford, perhaps need to be recalled at this moment:
It is time for all the heroes to go home
if they have any, time for all of us common ones
to locate ourselves by the real things
we live by.
We are in fact locating ourselves, at just this moment, “by the real things/we live by” — our studies, our friendships, our hopes about the future, our part-time jobs, our full-time commitments, the love of our families, the courage to confront and work through loss, the imagination to envision possibilities beyond anything our present seems to hold, our allegiances to various and often overlapping communities, and by much else. We, here, live by real things.
There will be another incomparable fall day, when the quality of light is beyond anything Claude Monet or any other painter could begin to capture, when the crisp cold is not biting but enlivening, when the smell of fallen leaves is as much testimony to a fulgent summer as the autumnal transition — and, on that day, the smile of the young woman in the photo will have returned with a radiance making all else invisible. I do not know when this day will be, but I do know that your courage and imagination will make of whatever loss we are suffering a future in which such radiance floods our corner of the world.
Whatever my doubts and confusion are at this time, I have no doubt about this.
Please know that (apart from the public disturbance) my pride in you is, especially at this time, unbounded.
Vincent Colapietro is a professor in the department of philosophy. Email him at email@example.com.