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Michele Marchetti: In Throes of Darkest Pain, State College Still Rallies

by on November 16, 2011 8:27 AM

The news trucks and reporters caught me off guard. For 20 blissful minutes Monday I walked along Pugh Street without a single reminder of the scandal that has ripped apart our town. When the sight of the reporters brought on a fresh wave of disappointment, I chided myself for thinking—even if it was for just a few seconds—that they went home after the football game. As if the scandal somehow got packed up with the equipment bags.

Our naiveté about living in "Happy Valley" has been rightly scrutinized. As we have painfully realized these past few weeks, we aren't immune to the ugliest forms of human behavior. But there's a level of schadenfreude at play here that's hard to stomach. The same rule of family, it seems, applies to community: We can talk about our town and even criticize our blind faith in its leaders, but it hurts when the analysis comes from outsiders who don't shop in the same grocery stores as the people they're writing about.

I've heard from relatives and friends eager for details on the mood in State College. For the most part, I haven't responded. It's depressing, and everyone seems to know someone who is hurting for different reasons. But I hesitate to tell that to people who don't live here, because I think outsiders wrongly assume that this town is permanently tarnished, that child molesters are lurking on every corner, and that the phrase "Happy Valley" will forever be a punch line.

This weekend my 13-year-old niece and 10-year-old nephew came to visit. Last week I met a woman who had just moved to State College. I hope these people see what I see: a strong, tight-knit community still on its feet after being dealt the harshest punch of its life.

While our leaders let us down in the worst possible way, the rest of this town is rallying. I've never spent so much time on Facebook, and for every link rehashing abhorrent details, there's a post pulling a shred of human dignity out of this nightmare.

Yes, students rioted and felt strangely compelled to sing "Sweet Caroline," but many more raised thousands of dollars for child sexual abuse victims. An idiotic reporter incited the crowd. Meanwhile, Adam Smeltz and other local reporters are giving new hope to community journalism.

I work for Penn State, and have spent ten years as a member of an Alumni Advisory Board. Penn State launched my career, introduced me to my husband, and led me to my current hometown. It pays my bills, contributes to my nest egg, and may someday welcome my children in its classrooms. My relationship with this school transcends Football Saturdays; turning my back on it is a bit more complicated than sticking my Penn State sweatshirt back in the closet.

My story isn't unique, and many of my friends share similar paths. We are Penn State, and we are also State College. The university brings us back, but the town is the reason we stay. Many of us live here because we put the desires of our children ahead of our own. We're rewarded daily for our decision in our interactions with teachers, daycare providers, coaches, doctors, and neighbors who treat our kids with intelligence, kindness and respect. And, yes, on Football Saturdays, even this past one, there's nothing better than being at a tailgate watching your kids run through the fields with Cheetos smeared all over their faces.

That's what I want to tell people when they ask about State College—not that my husband and I felt compelled to talk to our son about inappropriate touching. For a brief moment this morning, we took him away from a 24-7 imagination of wizards, battles, and super heroes—a world with a limited definition of the phrase "bad guy." He didn't completely understand what we were saying, but he knew enough to realize that it was serious.

As a mom, few things are more disturbing than the notion of sexual abuse. I am disturbed, saddened, and pissed off that my mind has been taken to that horrible place, and that kids my son's age are battling real demons.

What's it like in State College? It sucks. Our neighbors are hurting, and our biggest employer is in shambles. Our fears have been heightened, and our ability to believe the best in people possibly destroyed.

The character of our community, however, remains intact.



Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of StateCollege.com. Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MMStateCollege or contact her at mitchmarchetti@gmail.com
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