I’m 31, an Iraq war veteran, a Penn State graduate, a Catholic, a native of State College, acquaintance of Jerry Sandusky’s, and a product of his Second Mile foundation.
And I have fully lost faith in the leadership of my parents’ generation.
I was never harmed by Sandusky, but I could have been. When I was 15, my mother, then looking for a little direction for her teenage son, introduced me to the Second Mile’s Friend Fitness program. It was a program resembling Big Brother, Big Sister with a weekly exercise regimen.
Instead of Sandusky’s care, I was sent to a group of adults, many of whom were in their 20s. They took me from a C-student to the University of Chicago, where I’m a master’s student now. They took the football team’s waterboy and made a 101st Airborne Division soldier.
I was one of the lucky ones. My experience with Second Mile was a good one. I should feel fortunate, blessed even, that I was never harmed. Yet instead this week has left me deeply shaken, wondering what will come of the foundation, the university, and the community that made me into a man.
One thing I know for certain: A leader must emerge from Happy Valley to tie our community together again, and it won’t come from our parents’ generation.
They have failed us, over and over and over again.
I speak not specifically of our parents — I have two loving ones — but of the public leaders our parents’ generation has produced. With the demise of my own community’s two most revered leaders, Sandusky and Joe Paterno, I have decided to continue to respect my elders, but to politely tell them, “Out of my way.”
They have had their time to lead. Time’s up. I’m tired of waiting for them to live up to obligations.
Think of the world our parents’ generation inherited. They inherited a country of boundless economic prosperity and the highest admiration overseas, produced by the hands of their mothers and fathers. They were safe. For most, they were endowed opportunities to succeed, to prosper, and build on their parents’ work.
For those of us in our 20s and early 30s, this is not the world we are inheriting.
We looked to Washington to lead us after September 11th. I remember telling my college roommates, in a spate of emotion, that I was thinking of enlisting in the military in the days after the attacks. I expected legions of us — at the orders of our leader — to do the same. But nobody asked us. Instead we were told to go shopping.
The times following September 11th called for leadership, not reckless, gluttonous tax cuts. But our leaders then, as now, seemed more concerned with flattery. Then -House Majority Leader and now-convicted felon Tom Delay told us, “nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes.” Not exactly Churchillian stuff.
Those of us who did enlist were ordered into Iraq on the promise of being “greeted as liberators,” in the words of our then-vice president. Several thousand of us are dead from that false promise.
We looked for leadership from our churches, and were told to fight not poverty or injustice, but gay marriage. In the Catholic Church, we were told to blame the media, not the abusive priests, not the bishops, not the Vatican, for making us feel that our church has failed us in its sex abuse scandal and cover-up.
Our parents’ generation has balked at the tough decisions required to preserve our country’s sacred entitlements, leaving us to clean up the mess. They let the infrastructure built with their fathers’ hands crumble like a stale cookie. They downgraded our nation’s credit rating. They seem content to hand us a debt exceeding the size of our entire economy, rather than brave a fight against the fortunate and entrenched interests on K Street and Wall Street.
Now we are asking for jobs and are being told we aren’t good enough, to the tune of 3.3 million unemployed workers between the ages of 25 and 34.
This failure of a generation is as true in the halls of Congress as it is at Penn State.
Perhaps the most vivid illustration this week of our leaderless culture came with the riots in State College that followed Paterno’s dismissal. The display resembled Lord of the Flies. Without revered figures from the older generation to lead them, thousands of students at one of the country’s best state universities acted like children home alone.
This week the world found the very worst of human nature in my idyllic Central Pennsylvania home. I found that a man my community had anointed a teacher and nurturer of children, instead reportedly had them hiding in his basement. The anger and humiliation were more than I could bear. I can’t wait for my parents’ generation’s Joshua any longer. They’ve lost my faith.
Thomas Day is a graduate student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.