Editor’s Note: The essay below is an edited version of a letter Bernard Badiali, an associate education professor at Pennsylvania State University, shared with his students four days after a former assistant football coach at the university was arrested and charged with child sexual abuse.
One message we come to understand as we mature and grow into the teaching profession is that “life is for learning.” The message can be phrased many different ways; we say “lifelong learning” or “learning from your experience” or “becoming a reflective practitioner.” Our whole tradition of reflection in your preparation program is essentially that we should try to think deeply about what our observations and experiences really mean. Through our classes and activities in the College of Education, we are always urging you to look beneath the surface, try to make sense of what is going on, and use that knowledge to inform the way we act and think in the future. This way of seeing the world implies that we must give extra effort to understanding human nature as well as human actions. It is not an easy habit to maintain, but it is a habit of mind that is essential if you intend to be a great teacher.
Human events can sometimes be terribly complicated and difficult to understand. What complicates matters is that we are more than just thinking beings; we are also feeling beings. I can remember only a few times in my life when thoughts and feelings have come together so strongly as they have in the past week. Maybe you share my sense of sadness, shame, anger, and grief for what has come to light at Penn State in recent days, or maybe you have other thoughts and feelings about the circumstance we find ourselves in at the moment.
Whatever your reaction to this tragedy, I hope you ask yourself three important questions: What did I learn? What does it mean? How can I use it to inform my own life?
Let me just give you a brief personal reaction to these questions. I don’t expect your answers to these questions to be the same as mine, nor is what I am about to write comprehensive enough to express my full reaction to this situation, but it’s a start. If you want to discuss the matter further, I am more than willing to meet and talk with you. I’m sure that your other professors, instructors, and counselors are as well.
What did I learn? I guess I learned that there truly is evil and sickness in the world that I would rather not have known about. I still cannot believe that child abuse of this nature happens and that it could happen right next door. I learned that shock and fear have the power to prevent us from doing the right thing even when we know we should. I learned that there are always outsiders quick to condemn and cast blame even when they don’t know the facts; people are quick to judge. I learned that sometimes the most righteous indignation comes from critics who have never really done anything with their own lives but criticize others. I learned to never doubt the power of community. Good or bad, we are all connected.
What does this mean? It means that even the best of people can suffer a mental illness or be driven by an insidious aspect of their character. It means that power can be very abusive. It means that doing the right things can sometimes take enormous courage. It means to me that compassion and forgiveness are in short supply when outrage is in the air. But it also means that our community sensibilities are to safeguard and protect children who are helpless, and to transgress against defenseless kids may be the most unforgivable of crimes. I learned that the law is not the final word when it comes to justice. There are ethical principles beyond the law that better define what is right and what is wrong.
How will I use this to inform my own life? I suppose I will try to have a sharper eye when considering what might be an abuse of power on any level. The words “social justice” have a deeper meaning for me now. I’d like to be more thoughtful and less quick to judge others. That doesn’t mean I won’t judge others, but it does mean that I have to be more conscious about what information informs my judgment. This situation also reminds me that we can be loyal to an institution, but that we cannot expect any loyalty in return if we mess up. Do I love Penn State, or do I love the spirit embodied in how Penn Staters relate to one another?
I have also been thinking more about the words of Parker Palmer (who founded the Center for Courage and Renewal, in Bainbridge Island, Wash.): “Your life is your message.” If that’s so, then I’d like to thank Joe Paterno for living his life with us here at Penn State. Even the best people mess up. I want to work harder on trying to forgive his mistakes as well as the more egregious mistakes of others. That will take some effort in this situation. I want also to keep in mind that I am (WE ARE) Penn State and that our collective goodness will far outdistance the evil that has occurred here.
Thanks for choosing to become a teacher.