This should be an adorable photo. A family on a weekend trip to Mom’s alma mater. The boys, in matching t-shirts, pose with a statue of the university’s most beloved figure. The younger strikes a jaunty pose — you can tell he’s the ham of the family. The type of kid who stumbles onto a joke, and then repeats it at each family function, turning a couch into a stage at every opportunity. The older stands upright and awkward. Shy. Uncomfortable in his own skin. Together it makes for an ideal picture. Their young identities perfectly distilled, captured, and immortalized in a photo that will no doubt be brought out to embarrass them in front of future girlfriends. A happy memory of a happy trip. That’s what this photo should be. But that’s not what it is. It’s a trigger for horrific dread and loathing.
In recent days, Penn State officials have said that they have no plans to remove the statue of Joe Paterno that sits on campus. Said one trustee: “You can’t let people stampede you into making a rash decision. The statue represents the good that Joe did. It doesn’t represent the bad that he did.”
It would be great if that’s how life worked. If you could just unilaterally decide how other people experienced the world. But we all know that’s not the case, and even this very statement, this idea that the university has simply decided that this statue is a tribute to only Paterno’s best moments, represents the same institutional failings that led the late coach to his worst. For years, Penn State chose to ignore the well-beings of children in favor of focusing on “the good” that Paterno and his supporters were doing. The football games they won. The money they donated. The charity they threw themselves into (perhaps to fill the gaping guilt-induced hole that they tore into their own chests). To turn around now and make the mistake again—in defense of a pile of bronze!— is so beyond the pale insulting that I almost can’t believe the person who said it has watched the news in the last seven months. Because the Joe Paterno who said, “Losing a game is heartbreaking. Losing your sense of excellence or worth is a tragedy,” is the same Joe Paterno who failed to live up to those words. To separate them is to excuse the inexcusable.
Of course, it’s in the nature of any institution to distrust a group of folk who ain’t from around here who are telling it to do something. When a banner flies over the school saying, “Take the statue down or we will,” the natural response is to dig in and resist. (By the way: who’s “we”? It sounds like something from the Dark Knight Rises trailer.) But I hope that the administration realizes what a mistake it would be making to do so. Look at that top photo again. If you have a statue that becomes disturbing when a child poses next to it, that’s a bad statue. And to have that symbol of pain and ignored screams sit next to the word “humanitarian” is enough to make anyone’s heart hurt.
I understand that the university is still reeling. I understand that this all must feel like it’s happening very fast. I understand that saying goodbye to the identity you’ve spent the better part of forty years building for yourself is not an easy thing to do. But the right things rarely are.