Friday, November 11, 2011

YOU Are Penn State

First and foremost, I want to say how incredibly sad I am for the victims of Jerry Sandusky. I cannot even imagine the pain, suffering, mental anguish, and heartache they have gone through. I wanted to state this upfront because I feel like they have been lost in the media's witch hunt, and I want to make sure they are not lost in my post.

Fall Saturday afternoons always meant Penn State football in the Spaventa house, no questions asked.  As a young girl, I would sit next to my dad and watch as JoePa ran onto the field with his players decked out in their simple blue and white uniforms. In my hometown, you either went to Penn State or knew friends and family who did. Penn State is a way of life where I grew up.

I have several close friends who went to Penn State and we constantly banter over who went to the better school. As much as I claim I dislike PSU, I will always have a special place for the school in my heart.

When the tragedy occurred at Virginia Tech in 2007, the Penn State community rushed to support us in our time of need. Their famed student section created a VT at their Spring Game and students wore t-shirts with the Nittany Lion in VT's orange and maroon.

The comfort Penn State offered my school has stayed fresh in my mind these past few years. My heart honestly aches for Penn State. I can't imagine the confusion, shock, and pain alumni, students, and faculty must feel right now, as I struggle with a muted version of what they must be going through.

I have a piece of advice for the Penn State community: Get away from the television and stop reading articles, blog posts, etc. The media will make the pill of this scandal so much harder to swallow. Remember that the media's job is to sell stories. They do not care that they are belittling something that you hold so true and dear to your heart. You know what Penn State stands for. Do not let them hurt you even more than you are already hurting.

Those of you who are bashing Penn State need to stop. Sandusky's actions are beyond deplorable and I hope justice is served tenfold. The other men involved should have done more and should be ashamed of themselves for letting a monster roam free for years.  As for the students who rioted, they are immature kids who don't understand the immensity of this situation. Let me put it to you this way, judging Penn State based on the people mentioned above would be like judging America based on the people involved with Occupy Wall Street. I for one do not associate myself with those in that movement, but still consider myself very much an American.

Penn State is so much more than this scandal. I have read several Facebook posts and articles, which discuss the hit PSU's reputation is going to take. While I agree that Penn State will suffer for some time because of this, I don't think the school is ruined.

So many outsiders claim that Penn State is only about football. I wholeheartedly disagree.  Does THON ring a bell? Last year's THON raised over $7.8 million to aid the fight against pediatric cancer. Penn State is also consistently ranked as one of the top 15 public universities. Football is a big part of the school, but it in no way defines PSU.

I think everyone needs to take a deep breath and take a step back. I am having extreme déjà vu, as I watch the media persecute Penn State and lose sight of so many crucial points in this tragedy:

1. The children who have lost their innocence and dignity forever at the hands of a pervert have barely been mentioned. They should be the focal point in this whole sad story and they are not. Why have they been forgotten?

2. Yes, JoePa and the other Penn State officials should have done more. Unfortunately, they got what they deserved, as they abdicated their moral duty and responsibility. However, the media circus was not necessary and just as reprehensible. In addition, I am at a loss as to why we are hearing more about what Paterno did wrong than Sandusky. I find it interesting that on Tuesday, most in the media said that we needed to wait to hear more facts. Once JoePa's press conference was cancelled and the media did not have a story, they lit torches and pulled out their pitchforks and went after him Wednesday … no sense having all that media sitting around in State College doing nothing, right?

3. Why aren't the parents of the abused children being held accountable? Sandusky's Second Mile offers children a "second chance" because their parents could not give them a proper childhood. If these parents had done their jobs (parenting) to begin with, these poor children would have never been put in a compromised position. Parenting is an honor and these parents lost sight of that and their biggest responsibility in life. Why are they getting a free pass from the media and so many people?

I am having a hard time dissecting all of my thoughts and feelings on this scandal, but I find it maddening how people are jumping to conclusions when we truly do not know all of the facts. Most of us are also adults and have forgotten the golden rule, "Judge not lest ye be judged." ESPN recently interviewed Bill Curry and he said something that really stuck out to me,

"Nobody is pure as the driven snow. Whoever has been perfect in these kinds of things when you have learned of something, did you always do exactly the right thing? Probably not. Most of us, 99% of us, are not perfect. Well, 100% are not perfect, but we have all got things we can look back and think right now, 'Gee, I should have done something different here or there.'"

I will be the first to raise my hand and say I am not perfect, so I am ready and willing to hear all of the facts before I pass judgement. Also, last time I checked, America abides by the "innocent until proven guilty" standard and not the "off with their heads" mentality the media has been perpetrating.

I hope and pray that the victims get the justice they so desperately deserve. Hopefully this justice gives them some sort of solace and they can begin to piece their lives back together.

To the Penn State community, stay strong and united. Do not let these actions define the school you all love so much. YOU are Penn State, not a few people's poor decisions. Much like Virginia Tech, you will come out of these dark days better and stronger than ever before.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

And I'm Proud to be an American

Like many Americans, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first got word of the planes hitting the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. I was sitting in my Honors English class my first week of freshman year of high school. My teacher had just finished prayers when our loudspeaker crackled alive with an announcement.  "Attention, faculty and students. A plane has struck one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. We don't have many details at this time, but please take a moment to say a prayer with your students for those who have been affected by this tragedy."

Confused, I looked at the girl next to me and asked, "What's the World Trade Center?" She looked at me blankly and shrugged her shoulders. Another girl overheard our conversation and explained to us how tall the buildings were. Naively, I said something like, "How did the pilot not see the building?"

At that moment, our loudspeaker sprung into action once more. "Attention, faculty and students. A second plane has hit the second World Trade Center tower and another plane has hit the Pentagon. A third plane has crashed in Pennsylvania." My mind went numb after these announcements and I tried to understand what this meant. After the principal finished the announcement, my teacher looked at us and said something about terrorist attacks. 

We didn't have cable in our classroom, so my teacher flicked on the radio and we all listened in silence to the panicked announcers describing the scenes in New York City and DC. We were all horrified as more details came to light and slowly realized that this day would change our lives forever.

I'll never forget the relief I felt when I got a hold of my mom during my lunch break. I had been stressing out all morning because my dad was in London at the time on business. She had been in contact with him and told me he was safe.  I couldn't talk to her long because I was borrowing my friend's cell phone, so I wrapped up the conversation and said, "Mom? I want you to know that I love you so much." Her voice cracked and she replied, "I love you too, Laura."

The rest of that day was torture. I was dying to know what was going on and had a hard time focusing in class. I ran off the school bus and immediately turned on CNN. I sat there in a stupor as gory images ran across our television screen and countless emotions flooded my body.  Fear, shock, devastation, helplessness, and anger. How could someone have done this to us? How could someone hate America that much?

When my mom finally got home from work, my brother, sister, and I ran out to the garage to meet her. All four of us embraced in a giant group hug and stood there quietly. It struck me at that moment that some families wouldn't be lucky enough that night to hug their loved ones.

After that day, I was desperate to show my support to the country and freedom I had always taken for granted. I cut up one of my softball medals, so that I could tie the red, white, and blue ribbon in my hair. At the time, my family lived in the middle of nowhere, yet I lit candles every night and put them on our front doorstep to remember those who were lost. The first night I did this, my parents asked me why I felt the need to do so.  I explained how I felt like this was one of the few things I could do to help and support America. They never questioned me again. In fact, I always found candles and matches waiting for me on our kitchen counter every night I performed this memorial.

10 Years Later...

When I woke up this morning, I decided to avoid all media coverage of the ten-year anniversary of the attacks, as I know all too well how the media can make a tough event even harder. I was excited to find the Eagles game on TV and settled in to watch. State Farm's 9/11 tribute commercial came on and I found myself covered in goose bumps with tears streaming down my face.

At that moment, I knew I needed to get out of my apartment. I decided to walk up to Central Park to my favorite spot in New York City, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. I often walk around the JKO Reservoir when something is troubling me. As I felt my sadness melting away, I found it ironic that the city that had been targeted and hurt deeply 10 years ago, was offering me comfort.

A view of Midtown from the JKO Reservoir on 9/11/11.

I heard a bagpipe in the distance, as I rounded the reservoir and faced the beautiful view of Midtown. September 11th will always be a devastating day in New York and America's history, yet it is also a day to celebrate the courage and strength of so many.

Say what you want about New Yorkers, but it takes a special kind of community to rebound from such a senseless tragedy. Even in the chaotic days after 9/11, New Yorkers displayed grit, determination, and strength and served as beacons of hope for the rest of the country. Yes, the terrorists were successful in taking the World Trade Center towers down, but they failed in their ultimate goal: crushing America's spirit. 

God Bless America today and always.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

You Can't Always Get What You Want

My source of contentment this week.
Contentment-noun- A state of happiness and satisfaction.

The above definition is relatively simple, yet I've noticed so many of us (myself included) have such a hard time understanding and achieving contentment in our lives. Why is this so when so many of us have so much to be thankful for?

As stated in a previous post, I had a tendency of looking at what I didn't have versus what I did have. I would achieve something and then look for my next big conquest. I compared myself to others and constantly thought, "If only I had so-and-so's life, I would be so happy."

Sadly, I overlooked my many blessings, such as my wonderful family, phenomenal friends, my health, a top-notch education, a job that pays the bills, etc.

I say this all in past tense because a few months ago I had an experience that opened my eyes to how ignorant and stupid I was being.

My roommate talked me into volunteering at a soup kitchen this past April. The experience as a whole was educational for me on so many levels, but one instance in particular really got me to stop and look at myself internally and make some changes.

Kristen (roommate) and I had just finished up our assignment of handing out canned goods to the elderly and handicapped outside the food shelter. We were standing inside saying goodbye to the people who had finished their meals when a woman approached me and asked me to pray with her. I readily agreed and as she took my hands in hers, I asked her what she would like to pray for.

To be honest, I was expecting her to ask to pray to better her situation or something along those lines. I couldn't have been more wrong. The woman looked me in the eye and said something like, "I want to pray for those poor souls in Japan and Tuscaloosa (both of these events had recently occurred at this point) who have lost family members, their possessions, and the will to live. I especially want to pray for those who don't know Jesus Christ. I want to pray that they will find Him, so that they have the strength to get through this and so they realize how lucky they are to be alive."

To say I was shocked at this woman's selflessness would be an understatement.  This woman pretty much had nothing, yet she still recognized that in the grand scheme of things her life wasn't that bad. I think this was the kick in the butt to get over myself that I needed.

Since this eye-opening experience, I've tried to keep my life in perspective and recognize how lucky I am versus dwelling on what I don't have. I'm twenty-four and have finally realized that I won't and shouldn't have it all at this point. 

I want to clarify that to me, contentment isn't just accepting your situation and not challenging yourself to be better. Contentment is being thankful for what you do have and working on what you would like to improve on, while not begrudging others for accomplishing things you have yet to achieve.

There is a difference between using someone's accomplishment(s) to push yourself to be better and allowing someone's accomplishment(s) to make you jealous and consume your life with unnecessary bitterness. 

In stepping back, I've reached a state of contentment in my life that I don't think I've ever experienced before. Don't get me wrong; I still have my weak moments where I question myself, my life's direction, and then some. However, I have found it easier to snap myself out of these negative thoughts now that I look internally, instead of externally.

Life has challenges and trust me, I fully understand that. At the same time, I'm fairly positive we can all find at least one thing to find contentment in every day. Even if it is something small such as the happy dog waiting for you when you get home, a hug from someone special after a rough day, or a beautiful sunset. As a friend said to me, "When you're busy looking at what you don't have, life will pass you by and you'll miss out on all the beauty." As cliche as this sounds, life is too short to dwell on the negative aspects.

I leave you with this quote from Eat, Pray, Love, "At some point you gotta let go, sit still, and allow contentment to come to you." Have you let contentment enter your life today?


Thank you  Mitch Beer, Charles Wells, and Nicole D'Alonzo for your feedback on contentment and what it means to you.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

He Did It His Way

This picture sums up my Pop-Pop so well.

In college I became involved with Relay for Life and when I was asked why I relayed, I would always respond, “My Pop-Pop.” Sure, I had other family members affected by cancer, but I was too young to understand cancer until the ugly disease struck my grandfather my senior year of high school.

My Pop-Pop was the patriarch of my dad’s family in every sense. We all adored him and looked to him for guidance and leadership. To be blunt, it was hard not to love the man. He was the “class clown” of the family and always played practical jokes on everyone around him. For instance, he had a cleft chin and when my cousins and I asked him what happened he made up an elaborate story of how he ran into a doorknob when he was younger. He was our hero and we ate up any and everything he said.

Pop-Pop also had a serious side, especially when it came to his family. In high school I experienced my first heartbreak. Shortly after my break-up, I was at a family party when my grandmother asked me how my boyfriend was doing. I guess she hadn’t heard the news of our split. My eyes welled with tears and my Pop-Pop immediately intervened and asked me to step outside with him. Once we excused ourselves, he pulled me into a hug without any questions and stood with me while I cried. 

My senior year of high school rolled around and with that came graduation. A few weeks before graduation my classmates and I had to turn in the names of family members and friends who would be attending our ceremony. My parents broke the news to me that my grandparents would be unable to attend. Their excuse didn’t exactly add up and I remember seething with anger that my grandparents would miss their oldest grandchild’s graduation. My dad looked hurt when I expressed my disappointment and I couldn’t comprehend why he didn’t understand my irritation. 

My graduation party took place a few weeks after my graduation ceremony. My Pop-Pop was in attendance and had to leave early because he wasn’t feeling well. He came up to me with tears in his eyes and apologized profusely. That's the first time a warning bell went off in my head that something could be wrong.

Later that night my mom and I were rehashing the party when my Pop-Pop’s early exit came up. My mom looked at me and uttered the dreaded words, “Laura, your grandfather has lung cancer.” I found myself gasping for air. It felt as though I had been socked in the stomach. I starred at her in disbelief as she explained how my parents had hid his illness from me since April (it was June at the time), as they didn’t want to ruin what should have been a happy time for me. As I tried to absorb what my mom was telling me, I remembered the resentment and selfishness I had portrayed when my parents told me my grandparents would be unable to attend my graduation. I have never felt more ashamed in my life. 

I went off to college as my grandfather entered the intense phases of chemo to fight his illness. At Christmas he looked gaunt, but he put on a brave face for all of us. My Pop-Pop was a huge Penn State fan, so he always gave me a hard time (all in good fun) for going to Virginia Tech. I gave him a Virginia Tech Grandpop sweatshirt for Christmas and as he opened it he looked up with a twinkle in his eye and said, “This is really great! I’ll have to find some duct tape to put over Virginia Tech and write Penn State!”

I never had the opportunity to see him wear that sweatshirt, but my dad told me he always wore it to chemo and would brag about me to any and everyone who would listen. Once he passed, my uncle and aunt gave it to me to hold on to. I don't think I will ever receive a more meaningful gift.

When I came home from my freshman year for the summer, my dad told me my grandfather was not doing well. He took me to visit him and I was blindsided as I walked in to my grandparents’ home and saw my bald grandmother. During my Pop-Pop’s fight with cancer, my Mom-Mom found out she had breast cancer. As if seeing my grandmother without hair wasn’t hard enough, the sight of my frail grandfather sent me over the edge. He once joked he shopped in the “Chubby” section, and yet he was thinner than I was when I saw him. I had to excuse myself to pull myself together.

Once I returned to the room to visit with my Pop-Pop, he immediately started singing “New York, New York” to lighten up the mood of the room. Even in one of his weakest moments, he tried to put a smile on my face. This was a true testament to my grandfather’s character. 

A few days later, on May 18, 2006, my grandfather lost his battle with lung cancer surrounded by those he loved.

His viewing and funeral were extremely difficult for all of us, however my grandfather still managed to get my family to laugh a few times, even from heaven. The power went out at his viewing, and we all had to chuckle amidst our tears. Pop-Pop had gotten his last practical joke in. In addition, my dad gave the eulogy and had the church laughing over some of my grandfather’s infamous lines.

I’ll never forget how packed the church was and how long the procession of cars stretched on the way to the gravesite. My dad said my grandfather never would had believed all of those people came to say goodbye to him. Instead, he would say they were there to support his wife, kids, and grandkids. I don’t think he understood the lasting impression he made on people. 

My family lost an integral part of our family five years ago today. I miss him with every fiber of my being.  This past weekend my dad’s family got together to celebrate both my cousin’s graduation from high school and my brother’s graduation from college. Surrounded by the love, laughter, and pure joy, it was quite clear that my Pop-Pop was present, especially when the sun came out for our family wiffle ball game. He always loved watching his 13 grandkids and 6 kids goofing off and enjoying one another’s company. I have no doubt in my mind that he was smiling down on us from heaven, as we carried on his legacy. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

We Still Haven't Forgotten

One of the many makeshift memorials on the drillfield
My senior year of high school I applied to ten schools, yet Virginia Tech always was my number one choice.  As soon as I stepped foot on campus, I knew without a doubt I belonged at Virginia Tech. VT was six and half hours away from home, yet I never second-guessed my decision. This was in large part due to the family-like atmosphere Virginia Tech provided. VT truly was my home away from home and my fellow Hokies (students and alum) all composed my extensive VT family.

When people ask where I went to school I proudly state Virginia Tech without hesitating. I usually get one of two responses: 
           1. A genuine response such as, "What a great school!" or "My dad went there!" 
           2. A stunned look followed by the dreaded, "Were you there when 'it' happened?"

The answer to the dreaded question is yes; I was there when 'it' happened. I was on campus and on lock-down under a desk while 'it' was taking place. My classmates and I did not know what our fates would be, nor if we would make it out of that classroom alive. I have never been so frightened in my life.

After being locked down for what seemed like an eternity, we were finally released from our classroom. I remember feeling like I was in a terrible dream that I couldn't wake-up from, as I frantically walked/ran to my car. Police with bulletproof vests and machine guns, police dogs, ambulances, and cop cars flanked what once was my beautiful and serene campus. 

When I finally made it back to my apartment, my best friend was waiting for me. We hugged one another and couldn't let go. One of us said something about transferring, but we both broke down immediately because we knew that wasn't an option. We both loved our school way too much to ever leave.

As the death toll kept rising, my friends and I desperately tried to get in contact with one another to ensure everyone's safety. Communication proved to be complicated, as phone calls were unable to go through. News spread quickly to the outside world, and my family and friends tried to get in contact with me in any way possible. I was blown away by how many people reached out to me, many of whom I had not heard from in years. 

The rest of that day and the following day were blurs. My friends and I struggled to wrap our heads around what we had just lived through, unable to come to terms with the enormity of it all.

The morning after 'it' a convocation took place in our basketball stadium. I felt like I was floating outside my body as I took in everything around me. Then-governor of Virginia, Tim Kane spoke to us, as did President Bush. I don't remember what they said to us, but I remember thinking: "This can't be happening, this can't be happening, this can't be happening." 

Throughout both of their speeches, I held hands with two of my sorority sisters, as all three of us quietly wept. We wept for our 32 family members we lost, for the devastated Hokie nation left behind, and for our innocence that was taken away from us in the blink of an eye.

Just as I thought my heart was going to explode from an inordinate amount of pain, an English professor by the name of Nikki Giovanni stood up at the podium. Her voice echoed throughout the hushed Cassell Coliseum, as she boldly read a poem she had composed, which ended with:

We are the Hokies.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We are Virginia Tech.

We immediately erupted into applause and the "Let's Go Hokies!" chant broke out. That's the first time I truly knew and believed that we would be okay.  Giovanni's simple and yet powerful ending became our battle cry. We would not let this tragedy define us and we would not let one sick individual defeat us. We were the Hokies and we stood tall.

Sending Hokie love to our 32 angels

Four Years Later

Saturday marks the four-year anniversary of that dark day in Hokie history. This will be the first year where classes aren't canceled to remember those who were lost that day. This is in large part due to the fact that the anniversary falls on a Saturday, but it is also because the last class who was present on that day graduated last year.

I realized that this also meant that all of the victims would have graduated as of last year. This realization made me wonder about the kind of impact they would be making on the world right now if their lives weren't unfairly ended that day. I remember being flabbergasted on the one-year anniversary, as all of the victims' accomplishments were read out loud. I think that's the first time I understood the quote, "Only the good die young."

A favorite quote from the ordeal says:

"I ask each of you to take the time to be a Hokie this week. Appreciate life a little more, take in every moment around you, count your blessings, tell the people around you that you love them, slow down, remember what's truly important in life. And live for those 32 that do not have that chance anymore." 

This quote says it all. Join me in honoring the 32 beautiful souls lost on that blustery April day four years ago by living life to the fullest. To our 32 angels, we still haven't forgotten you and I can say with certainty that we never will. Rest in peace.

We did prevail