I don’t recall what he said exactly, but it was the kind of derogatory comment about rude and entitled kids that might result in meetings, counseling, firings, and apologies if uttered today. Also, the idea of lower middle-class kids in a rural farming town being thought of as entitled seems somewhat laughable now, but everything is relative, and insults hurt like sticks and stones no matter the context.
I was a high school freshman, and should have said something to stop it. I was raised to know better. Instead I sat on a bench while a group of seniors unleashed a barrage of insensitive remarks about a working man and his chosen profession. I sat there and I laughed. It may have lasted three minutes.
I justified that moment in a number of ways, chief among them that the janitor said things about the students in such a manner as to invite conflict. Then he took their volley, which to be clear, did not attack him in any way other than his role as a high school custodian, and hit it back with more remarks of his own. Also, I was a young kid that found himself hanging out with a group of cooler, older kids, and it is amazing the havoc that such an environment can inflict upon years of knowing better.
I hope my children never find themselves in that situation.
I have felt bad about that moment for a long time, and then I saw the video of Karen Klein. Obviously I made the connection, hence my sharing it above, but it also put things in perspective. Our response to a grumpy man that hated his job and resented us for it had nothing on real bullying — not that such realizations excuse our behavior (or his), but once again it proves the power of all things being relative.
It turns out that what I thought was kids behaving badly was actually the comic relief of so many Disney Channel movies. And yet, it was hard to feel better.
Karen Klein knows real bullying.
The first time that I watched the now viral video of middle school kids bullying Klein, a 68-year-old bus monitor, I felt like their words were punching me in the stomach. I just watched it again, and it feels the same way.
By now you have probably seen the video (below, language NSFW), but if not, know that it is hard to watch. The video was filmed by a child on the bus that Klein is hired to ride as a monitor of student behavior, and instead shows her being the victim of it.
For 10 minutes a group of students curse at Klein, make fun of her weight and hearing aid, allude to violence against her, and basically do everything you hope that they wouldn’t.
At one point a boy suggests that Klein’s family should kill themselves due to her unforgivable ugliness. Klein’s son took his own life a decade ago. That is when the tears started. As I said, it is hard to watch.
The scene has been compared by more than one website to a modern spin on William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies, except that this is real and doesn’t explore what fears may come, but those that are here already. The fears are real and they are disgusting.
And what of the boys involved?
At the time of this writing at least two of the four kids mocking Klein have issued public apologies, and at least one of their fathers has come out as shocked and embarrassed. The father also said that his family has become the victim of death threats and other forms of public outcry that, frankly, are uncalled for. Death threats? That kind of behavior doesn’t help anyone.
As a father, I cannot imagine what it must feel like to know that my child is capable of such ugliness at the expense of another human being. It must be a shattering of many sorts.
With regard to my own experience, I am thankful that what I thought were the lines of human decency were instead my own boundaries, and those that I crossed were done so as an affront to my own sensibilities and not necessarily those created by society. It is a hollow victory.
Forgiving myself has come with a loss of innocence, and I am not sure that I am better for it.
My children, however, will be. I plan on taking what I know of such things, pairing it with the unforgivable taunting of Klein, and using it as a tool in maintaining the kindness and empathy that currently reside inside my boys. I do not want to know what it feels like to be that father, and I will do my damnedest to help my children draw their lines accordingly.
I believe that the learning experience offered is a (thankfully) rare chance to make something positive from a bad situation. And there is more inspiration to be found in Klein’s story.
A website was set up in hopes of raising $5,000 that would allow Klein to take a vacation. At last count the amount raised was closer to $600,000 and Southwest Airlines has offered Klein and her family a trip to the Disneyland Resort. Klein has become an internet sensation, and the outrage that her experience has ignited is also working to bring together a world of people eager to do the right thing.
That is the silver lining in Klein’s dark cloud, and it one worth shining.
Whit Honea can be found writing about whatever he feels like at his personal site Honea Express (Honea sounds like pony) and DadCentric. If you’re really bored you can follow him on the Twitter or Pinterest (his opinions are his own and do not reflect those of Babble or most rational people).
Also from Whit: