PENN STATE, 2011, AND WHITMAN MIDDLE SCHOOL, 1994: This is a long post, one my colleagues at ALOTT5MA HQ will recognize as falling in the category of "Ahem I Have Something To Say 'Bout Something." If you're looking for the Isaac Spaceman that is trying to make you laugh, you might want to skip it, because this one is about Penn State.
When I was in high school, my friends were mostly kids that had gone to a different middle school than I did. Their middle school, Whitman, was in a better neighborhood than my school was (or, for that matter, than my neighborhood), and it was more fully integrated in the community around it. A large group of Whitman boys, mostly wealthy or upper-middle-class kids, took annual canoeing and camping trips to the cabin of a teacher, Neal Summers – "Buddha" to his favored students – every year, and often they would keep going even after graduating from Whitman.
When my friends started getting their drivers’ licenses, we sometimes would go out to Buddha's house just north of Seattle. He had a pool table and a hot tub. If Summers wasn't there (and sometimes we went specifically because we knew he was out of town), we’d fire up the hot tub and make ourselves at home. If Summers was there, sometimes he would give us cans of Rainier Beer; other times he would just go about his business as if we weren’t there. A few times, there already would be other kids there, usually ex-Whitman students from a rival high school. Once, we showed up and Summers and a bunch of kids that seemed younger than us were watching a video of a stallion mounting a mare. Summers thought it was hilarious and kept rewinding it. If we were in the hot tub, sometimes Summers would join us, a middle-aged white Buddha in fogged-up glasses and a speedo.
Summers never really cottoned to me. He was close with a couple of my friends who had gone to Whitman, but as many times as I had been to his house, I’m not sure that he ever learned my name or the name of the other kid we hung around with who was not one of Summers’s former students. I went to his house to hang out with my friends, to play pool, and to get a free beer from time to time, but I was not in the Buddha inner circle.
Several years later, when I was in my early 20s, Summers was shot and killed walking through the entrance to Whitman. The guy who shot him, Darrell Cloud, was my age. I didn't know Cloud, though I knew of him – he was a Whitman classmate of my friends, he played for a while on a rival football team with some other friends of mine, and then he moved out of Seattle and quarterbacked a suburban team to the state title. I may have met him at Summers's house or at Dick's Drive-In, the burger joint where kids from his school and mine would mingle (or occasionally fight). Cloud shot Summers because Summers had abused him for years – Summers began raping Cloud when Cloud was a high school freshman. The abuse never stopped. When Cloud couldn't take it any more, he parked his truck in the Whitman lot and waited for Summers with a high-powered rifle. After killing Summers, he asked some of his Whitman friends to hide the rifle; his friends, seeing the news that Summers had been shot, were the ones who, in anguish, told the police to interview Cloud. Cloud ultimately served something like 15 years in prison – from what I can tell with Google, he got out a few years ago.
When I saw on the news that Summers was shot – and before I knew who shot him and why – my first thought was, "of course." I knew Buddha as a middle-aged confirmed bachelor who took groups of boys on camping trips, had unusually close relationships with former students, frequently gave beer to minors, had late night impromptu hot tub parties with the same minors, and showed children at his house videos of horses having sex. There is no logical reason why I should not have connected the dots and marched into the Whitman office – at 16 years old or later, whenever I remembered those times – and said "this man should not be teaching children." But I didn't.
And I began to wonder about my high school friends who went on all of the Buddha trips, the ones who brought me to Summers's house – the bright nerd who turned dissolute; the earnest one who later developed severe psychological problems; the preppie kid who barely graduated, had a deeply destructive relationship with his girlfriend (one of my oldest friends), and later spent time in jail after a bar fight. These are the kinds of things that happen to countless kids in and after high school, and they weren’t evidence of anything. But Summers raped Darrell Cloud, and I suspect that Cloud wasn’t his only victim, and that made me and makes me wonder about the friends who seemed to have lost their way by the time Summers was killed.
I was a kid, not an adult, when I saw Summers’s creepy behavior, and what I saw was inappropriate, troubling, and sometimes criminal, but nowhere near the level of what McQueary saw – a rape in progress. By the time I was sophisticated enough to bear some moral responsibility, the events had long receded into distant memory. I wasn't the head of a football program that had ties to the rapist, and I wasn't an executive in an institution whose mission is the education and advancement of young people. I like to think that my responsibility was not as concrete or as urgent as that of the people involved in this Penn State fiasco. I think that Paterno, Curley, Schmidt, and Spanier have given Penn State no choice but to fire them, because the university cannot be seen as supporting or condoning their inaction in any way. But I would be lying to you, and to myself, if I said that I don't understand the impulse not to say anything or do anything. If there is any way to rationalize the behavior, to call the evidence inconclusive, or, failing that, to make it somebody else's responsibility, there is a powerful human instinct to do that. I like to think that if I saw someone raping a child, I would intervene and then go to the police, without regard to any possible consequences to me. But it's easy to say that. Until it happens – never, I hope – I won't know, and neither will you. McQueary, a former Big 10 quarterback, was distraught at what he saw, even a day later. The janitor who caught Sandusky in an earlier rape broke down and cried, and he was a Vietnam veteran. They both were paralyzed in horror, didn’t stop the rapes, and ultimately didn't do the right thing, or enough of the right thing.
I'm not trying to defend anybody in this scandal, and if it isn't clear enough, I think that every one of them had to be fired (and if they haven't already been fired, they should be). They failed as human beings in a way that had agonizing consequences for others. And I know that my initial reaction was that they are all criminals. But now, having thought a lot about it, I think that failing as a human being is not the same thing as being a bad human being. There is enough room for Paterno to have been wrong for not doing anything in 2002 (or maybe 1998) and also to have been honest when he said, in hindsight, that that is the greatest regret in his long and eventful life. And maybe that's just me rationalizing my own behavior, because when I think about Jerry Sandusky and his victims, I can't help but also think about Neal Summers and his victims -- Darrell Cloud and maybe others -- and what could and should have been done for them.