People Who Live in Glass Houses Shouldn’t Throw Stones

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As the mother of an 11-year old boy, the news of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged child abuse and the questionable diligence Joe Paterno exercised in reporting the incident  hit close to home.

Needing an outlet for my feelings, I posted the following on my Facebook page immediately after I heard the news:

“I don’t care about winning streaks, national titles, or hollow sound bites. That members of the Penn State administration barely raised their hands when faced with eye-witness actions of a pedophile who was one of their own shows that those individuals have no heart.  That Joe Paterno didn’t act to better protect and defend an innocent child who was raped in his “house” proves that he has no soul.”

I was mad.

But now that time has passed and I’ve reflected on the matter, I feel something much more complex.

In that moment, my sentiment was genuine, fueled by real indignation coming straight from the heart.   Any parent knows that the passion nourished by this organ is three-dimensional, and beats more ferociously than anything else.

But in pointing my finger at Joe Paterno, I could have just as easily been looking in the mirror at myself.

About two years ago, I was at the grocery store rushing to pick something up that my daughter, Grace, needed the next day at school.  It was late, and I was both preoccupied and annoyed.  Like most moms, I was running behind a never-ending to-do list that seemed to square itself and multiply whenever I wasn’t looking.  Snow swirled outside, it was an unusually frigid Colorado night, and a humid chill was biting, snapping, and pushing people indoors.  All I wanted to do was get what I needed, check out, and go home.

Turning down the frozen food aisle, I came upon a young boy, about my son’s age, and an old man.  The man was huge, well over six feet tall, unshaven, wearing dirty old jeans, suspenders, and an untucked, long-sleeved shirt.

The boy?  Small.  Cowering.  A little disheveled as he gazed up at the old man while simultaneously trying to avert his eyes.

He reached for a frozen pizza, and the old man smacked it out of his hand, mocked his sagging posture, and demanded, “What do you think I am, an ATM?”

The boy looked down at his feet and didn’t say a word.

In that moment, I knew something was wrong.

I slowed down and watched them, easing up close and trying to make myself known.  The old man realized I was there, looked at me, made eye contact, and didn’t smile.  I didn’t smile back.

And then he grabbed the boy by the shoulder, threw me a backwards glare, and dragged him toward the door.

I felt a mixture of emotions then…anger, confusion, pain, sadness…but the one that overwhelmed me at the time and now makes me feel ashamed?

Fear.

That old man scared me, and in a split second I used fear to assess and rationalize what I was about to not do…my husband, Scot, was out of town, the kids were home alone, and the storm outside was getting worse.  The old man was probably the little boy’s grandfather, unemployed, and having a bad day.

Except my gut told me that wasn’t the case.

While I tried to convince myself I was overreacting so I could get on with my life, my conscience argued the other side.  Strenuously.

But I didn’t listen.

In an instant, I made a decision that will haunt me for the rest of my life.

I turned my head.  I closed my eyes.  I walked away.

That little boy needed help, and I didn’t extend my hand.

For the last two years, my dreams have been filled with that child’s face.  He’s calling out to me, screaming my name, and I’m searching frantically, straining to see through the dark and place the location of his voice so that I can pull him toward me and wrap him in my arms.

But I’m never able to find him, and when I wake up and can’t get back to sleep, I see him hovering two inches above me, eyes wide and afraid.  And then he’s gone.

After the Sandusky allegations came to light, the dreams got worse, and the little boy’s face became fused with my son’s: at a football camp, trapped in a bathroom, confused and alone, running down a grocery aisle from someone who’s supposed to be a hero but is instead inflicting cruel and unimaginable pain.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I wrote the Facebook post about Joe Paterno, I was also writing about myself.

I’d give anything to have that moment in the grocery store back, to actually listen to my sixth sense instead of brushing it aside.  To have made a different choice.

But it’s gone.

Mothers make mistakes.  Famous coaches make mistakes.  We all make mistakes. Unfortunately, we often have no idea in the moment how big those mistakes can become.

Everything matters.  The little voice inside your head that won’t shut up?  Listen to it.  The guy sitting on your shoulder who you’d just as soon leave?  Hear him out.

Joe Paterno’s problem wasn’t rooted in the actual commitment of a crime.  His mistake was ignoring the voice that must have plagued him in his dreams, or two inches above his face when he couldn’t sleep at night.

Left alone, the voice of indecision becomes that of regret, and it doesn’t go away.

I will forever be haunted by that innocent child in the grocery store, wondering where he is, and at the same time, who I failed to be.  I think, in the twilight of his life, that Joe Paterno must have been haunted too.  What at first seemed like a glancing blow likely turned into a fatal wound.

Doctors can try to treat cancer, but they can’t diagnose a broken heart.

If you would like to give a voice to an innocent child, please go to http://www.casaforchildren.org.

27 responses »

  1. Hey Stace,

    This is powerful and thought provoking. Ric and I were just talking last night about this very thing of him dying with a broken heart.

    Jess

  2. Do you think you’d recognize either the little boy or the man if you saw photographs? There must be online listings of missing children in Colorado. It seems much more likely that, as cruel as the man seemed, he had a right to be with the boy. Your initial guess that he was the grandfather was probably close to the truth. Meanwhile, you’ve written a stunning essay that reflects your intention, from now on, to be vigilant and to follow your gut when you feel action is called for. Even more important, you’ve inspired all of us to keep our eyes and ears open a little wider, and to risk embarrassment — and maybe even injury — by offering help to a stranger who appears to be in trouble. Thank you for writing this, Stacie. It took courage. And I hope you’ll sleep a little better tonight because of it.

    • I do think I’d recognize both of them, but I also think, as you picked up, that they were somehow related. The little boy didn’t try to run away or catch my eye. It was his lack of interaction, with the old man and with me, that made me believe that something was wrong. It’s hard to describe without witnessing, but his posture, presence, intentional avoidance of eye contact, and general demeanor screamed that something was wrong. Verbal abuse? Physical? Sexual? I’m not sure, and even though I only observed them for a couple of minutes, something was so off that I couldn’t help but notice. I would act very differently if I could have that moment over again. But since I can’t, I thought that sharing my experience might influence someone else to make a better decision. Thank you for your thoughtful, kind, supportive comments Charles.

  3. had an incident in a wal mart parking lot that had a mother screaming at the top of her lungs at a child that was in a car seat. i approached her window and when she lokked at me i saw the fear of god in her face and figured i made my point…wish i wuda turned that licence # into protective services..

  4. Stacie, what a great post. I feel your pain and I fully understand your decision. I appreciate how you compared your experience to Joe Paterno. However, I think comparing your actions to Mr Paterno’s is wrong. You only had one opportunity while Mr Paterno had multiple opportunities throughout the years. My intent is not to crucify Mr Paterno, my intent is to acknowledge how your actions that evening have haunted you for a lifetime, while I really don’t think that was the case for Mr Paterno. Because if it was, he would have done something when the other incidents took place.

    Thanks for sharing such an amazing blog and message. You have made us all think.

    • You have a good point. The dreamer in me just hopes that he felt badly for his inaction, to not feel anything is hard to imagine. Thank you for taking the time to comment and for following me. You are such an impressive person…I’m honored. =)

  5. Very well written! I think we’ve all had those moments of regret – and uncertainty. Even though your instincts may have been screaming one thing, they might have been wrong. Give yourself a break. You’re a good person. The fact that you’ve been agonizing over this for years makes that clear.

    There is a difference between you and Paterno: he knew for sure, but the Good Old Boy Network is what kept him from truly following up with the allegations and seeing them through. He protected his friend – the person he knew – and not the poor kids he didn’t.

    Though I consider myself a loyal friend, there are limits. Very clear limits. You molest a kid and I find out about it. I won’t rest until I see you in prison – even if you’re my co-worker, best friend or family member. Thanks for giving all of us something to think about today.

      • Regarding Penn State coach’s sexual abuse of clihdren. I’m too upset to call on air. I’m so grateful for Mike Papantonio’s strong outrage about the responsibility and cowardice of Penn State men who chose money and football over the young clihdren who will be damaged for life. I read the Grand Jury’s report which can be accessed from the Pennsylvania State Attorney General’s website. It summarizes in horrifying detail the testimony of many young males who were recruited, given special privileges and gifts, and then sexually abused and assaulted by this trusted coach Sandusky. There are probably dozens more clihdren that were abused by this predator. It is impossible not to believe there was a deliberate coverup at multiple levels and on multiple occasions at Penn State just as in the Catholic church.My family lived in State College (home of Penn State) in the 1960 s. In that era, there were cases of young women being raped on campus by fraternity men. I don’t know what the university did then to deal with the perpetrators of those crimes and to prevent further sexual assaults. Sadly our society in general too often fails to protect clihdren or women (and occasionally men, especially gay men) from sexual assault often in their own families, schools, athletic and social organizations, churches, etc. The physical, emotional, psychological, financial and social costs of such failure are huge and long lasting,often impacting generations.

  6. A friend of mine, Charles, from Mostly Bright Ideas, told me to come read this post. I am so glad he did. Even if I am sitting here with tears in my eyes and my heart racing — I am glad I read it. Your writing is very powerful.

    I need to take a breath. And before I comment, I want to let you know that you cannot compare yourself to Joe Paterno — not in any way. That’s being too hard on yourself.

    After reading your story, I, too, will be haunted. Abuse in any form, toward a child is the greatest crime there is. This line, “Any parent knows that the passion nourished by [the heart] is three-dimensional, and beats more ferociously than anything else.” So true.

    Last month I found out that my three-year-old daughter was being bullied at her preschool. Preschool! I never in a million years thought that could happen. That the teachers would tolerate it. That when I went to the director, things wouldn’t get resolved. I am still spinning, and losing sleep from this, and I suspect I always will.

    My daughter had trouble with a little boy in her class from day one. But she is brave. And confident. And I didn’t understand when she tried to tell me, “he’s mean.” I kept putting her back into the situation. “Tell him,” I’d say. “Tell him you don’t like it when he does that.” I didn’t know how bad it was. On Christmas Day I finally had a talk with her about the boy, and it was one of the darkest hours of my motherhood.

    My baby, my little girl, sat in my lap as I rocked her and rocked her and watched her ring her hands (that killed me), shake, sob and be too afraid to tell me what he’d done to her. I was at such a loss. I asked her, quietly, “Do you think I’m going to be mad if you tell me?” She shook her head. Then I thought, “Do you think the little boy’s going to be mad?” And she lost it. Oh my God, all the signs of bullying. I talked her through it, and learned the boy had pushed her, hit her, knocked her to the ground, made her cry, for half a year– all while the teachers did nothing. Nothing.

    This was over winter break. And I should say, she only went to school twice a week. Six hours total, away from me, and this was her nightmare. I never understood why she couldn’t tell me what she’d learned at school; she remembers things from when she was a baby, it’s crazy, her memory. But now I know why. She was flat out terrified.

    In dealing with this, before I spoke with the school, I called other mothers, to see if their children had had any problems with this boy. Yes, yes, yes, I heard. Then one of the mothers told me something that shocked me. She said one day she was the last to drop her daughter off at school, all the other moms had already gone. And she saw the little boy push, shove and do something to either my daughter or another little girl (she didn’t remember) so bad that the teacher leapt across the room, grabbed him away and spent all her time trying to calm him down. The girl, 50% chance it was my daughter, was left alone. To cry. In the corner.

    I was livid. Livid. I’m still fuming as I type this. That the teachers would handle a situation like this? Inexcusable.

    So I asked this mother, “What did you do?” The answer, she just left.

    And I never would have heard this story had I not called her. She doesn’t want to get involved. She didn’t even want to call the other girl’s mom. I did. I called her and it was hard and we were both almost crying and yes, it broke our hearts.

    But I keep wondering, why? Why didn’t this mother speak up? My daughter, or another girl, was being bullied and she didn’t say anything? Or tell me? I don’t have an answer.

    What you describe in your post — the guilt you feel — the lost sleep — how you wish you’d made a different decision, the braveness you’ve shown in posting this — I admire you. It is not easy to speak up. Especially when there is an adult “in charge” as you saw. Please, from someone on the other side of your issue — do not beat yourself up. You should instead feel proud, that you care so deeply about this boy, and that you have the courage to share your story, to inspire others to speak up — and show what happens if you don’t.

    None of us says all the right things or does all the right things all the time. I know I sure don’t. All we can do is hope to get it right the next time. Your view is strong, and I hope many people read your story, and gain strength from the courage you’ve shown.

    • I’m so sorry for your daughter’s, and because, like all good moms, you are connected to her by a bond that’s unbreakable, your pain. She’s lucky to have a mother who feels so deeply, cares so passionately, and defends so faithfully. I got goosebumps reading your post, so thank YOU for telling your story. Sometimes strength comes in numbers. I’ve been amazed by the emotional response to my experience, and I’m humbled by the support. You are a great mom, and your daughter will continue to find her voice thanks to your whispers in her ear. Thank you for your thoughtful post and kind words.

  7. Your emotional struggle was one we all have faced. I think that an experience like that only has to happen once..and we learn trust our instincts. The next time we face that situation, our response will be appropriate. However, I am confident in saying, that if that child had been abused within your earshot you would have responded immediately to end it. That is much more than I can say for Penn State and the associates of Sandusky.

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