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Russell Frank: THON (Jekyll) vs. State Patty’s (Hyde)

by on February 17, 2012 4:20 AM

It’s Jekyll-and-Hyde time here in the land formerly known as Happy Valley.

This week, the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon (Jekyll).

Next week, State Patty’s Day (Hyde).

This weekend, Penn State students will counter the football-loving-louts image that dominated the airwaves after Joe Paterno was sacked by announcing that they’ve once again raised millions to help children with pediatric cancer and their families. The sanctimony that drips from this event can be a bit Jekyll-like, but still: bravo, bravo, bravo.

Next weekend, Penn State students are scheduled to reinforce the F-L-L image by painting the town green. Many of us killjoys are still hoping against hope that this year’s edition of State Patty’s Day will be a bust.

Everyone knows that none of the State Patty’s celebrations has made any sense since the first one, in 2007. That year, freakishly, St. Patrick’s Day and spring break overlapped. State Patty’s Day was a playful way for Penn State students to have the party here, together, before they dispersed for the week-long breather. Almost heartwarming, really.

This year, like all the years since 2007, spring break precedes St. Paddy’s day; ergo, no need for the State version. Of course, the same could have been said in the years 2008-2011, and the green beer flowed anyway.

But as many commentators have pointed out, this year is different. Our reputation has been damaged. Yes, some of the criticism has been unfair: Not everyone protested Paterno’s firing. Not everyone who protested Paterno’s firing rioted.

There’s more at stake than damage to reputation, though. A rottenness in the culture has been exposed. The rottenness isn’t football and it isn’t drinking. It’s too much football and too much drinking -- a matter of skewed priorities.

These pastimes, as pleasurable as they may be, should not be why anyone enrolls here. (No disrespect to Coach Paterno, but those who said he was the reason they came to Penn State need to find a better reason.) A meager turnout for State Patty’s Day would signal that the students get that.  

Needless to say, preachments from faculty members like me or Laurie Mulvey and Sam Richards (see their cogent appeal in the Collegian – and the responses to it), community members, Penn State administrators or even student leaders won’t have any impact. Our young scholars will have to decide for themselves whether they want to participate in this travesty of a tradition.

Again, this isn’t just about how it’s going to look on YouTube or whether “The Daily Show,” “South Park” and “Saturday Night Live are going to pick on us again. It’s about growing up a little, becoming a little more, shall we say, temperate.

I was originally going to say “serious” rather than “temperate,” but as the last few months have shown, life’s grim enough. I’m for as much silliness as we can get away with.

Paterno’s death only deepened the pall cast by the Sandusky scandal. A month after his death, the gloom lingers. So I can see how the students might be particularly eager to cut loose. I can also see how they might want to thumb their noses at the finger waggers who don’t want them to cut loose.

I just think it would be best for all concerned if they could hang in there for one more week and cut loose someplace else. After all, isn’t that what spring break is for?

Thinking about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde prompted me to go back to Stevenson’s story. Jekyll’s account of how he felt at the moment he imbibed the potion that would turn him into Mr. Hyde reads like a pretty apt description of what happens when one is on a binge:

“There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill-race in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine. I stretched out my hands, exulting in the freshness of these sensations.”

It’s not the drinking that’s the problem. It’s the wickedness. Quaint word, I know. But there’s nothing quaint about vandalism or assaults.

Defenders of State Patty’s Day think their freedom to have drinks with friends is under attack. It’s not, though. It’s destructive drinking that we all worry about, the kind that causes people to hurt themselves and to hurt others.

The kind that turns the Dr. Jekylls of THON into the Mr. Hydes of State Patty’s Day.

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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