Opinion | Why Penn State’s THON is Just an Elaborate Trick

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A magician shuffling a deck of playing cards
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By Jake Schwartz

Penn State’s Dance Marathon (THON) is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. Every year, more than 16,000 students raise tens of millions of dollars, which goes directly toward paying the bills and medical expenses of families dealing with pediatric cancer.

But … it’s all a trick.

Let me explain. I am a professional magician. I’ve been practicing the art of magic since I fell in love with it at 2 years old. I got into magic not for the personal joy of deceiving others, but rather for the joy that I was able to give to other people by amazing them.

I still remember my first real magic show, which I performed at my synagogue in exchange for a frozen yogurt gift card. I was a kid performing for other kids.

Magic is such a unique art form in that it has this incredible ability to keep people in the moment. I often explain this to others by saying, “When something vanishes in front of your eyes, you are not thinking about the taxes you have to do when you get home, or where the kids need to be dropped off and when.”

When magic is done right, the spectators are truly and totally in the moment, and everything else melts away. The real magic isn’t in the sleight of hand, but rather the disappearing act of making other people’s troubles, woes and daily stresses vanish even for just a moment. Magic was and still is an escape because magic is the guaranteeing of a moment in which nothing else matters.

Growing up Jewish, in Hebrew school we often talked about times in our lives in which we felt G-d’s presence, and felt true to ourselves. Performing magic has always been, and still is that time for me. The famous magic word abracadabra come from a Jewish term Aborei KiDavra or “It is created according to my word.” Judaism teaches us to come together as a community, and be present with each other on Shabbat or any night of the week.

THON is the epitome of community as thousands of students come together to impact lives. What can be more magical than that?

I have been involved with THON since my first semester at Penn State. I always loved what THON stood for, and how THON was able to impact the lives of others. So it was a no brainer for me to join a THON organization as soon as I got to Happy Valley.

I will never forget the epiphany I had during a meeting when all the members of my organization stood in a circle, all of us holding on to a clothesline from which there hung different squares of fabric. On each square of fabric was printed a name, a date of birth and something else that was very strange — a second date.  Each square represented a THON child who did not survive his or her treatment.

This took a moment and a few deep breaths to really wrap my head around — especially when across from me hung the fabric square of a child with my same birthday, born a year earlier. In my hand was the fabric of a boy born exactly two days after my younger sister. THON’s impact on the lives of others is what drew me to it in the first place, but this was also my misunderstanding.

What I have learned from getting to know these families who are fighting an unimaginable fight is that while we dance and fight for a cure, we are dancing and fighting not for others, but for ourselves. For each other. We dance so that every child can take for granted the things we took for granted. We dance so that every child’s top priority can be which tricks to do at his or her synagogue during that first show. I was a kid performing for other kids, and now I am a big kid dancing for other kids.

It has been incredibly rewarding to explore the different ways in which the art that I fell in love with while growing up can be a gift to those who had to grow up much faster than I. My organization has two “adopted” families that we check up on, do activities with and help through their journey. Our THON kids love when I give them the important job of guarding a quarter, only for it to vanish from inside their hand every time.

I have donated shows to raise money for THON, and do hundreds more a year, but the time with them and their smiles are why doing that one trick for an audience of six is always my favorite show.

So why is it all a trick? When I say Penn State’s THON is a trick, I mean in my eyes, THON is just one big magic trick. A magic show is very different than THON for many reasons, but the gift/result is just the same.

For 46 hours every year, we give these kids who have to worry about things no one at any age should have to worry about, the gift of an escape. THON provides that “oh my goodness” moment when something vanishes right in front of your eyes, but for 46 hours. Just as good magic makes all the day-to-day stresses vanish for a spectator, THON allows these kids, who are stronger than I have ever had to be, to just be kids.

THON is for these kids what magic has always been for me: the guaranteeing of a moment in which nothing else matters. That is real magic.

Jake Schwartz is a professional magician originally from Bucks County.

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