I was 11 years old that night I went out after dinner to Mr. Grocer. Mr. Grocer was a small, 7-Eleven-type store a few blocks from our house, and as a pre-adolescent I often took my allowance money there to treat myself to a candy bar or a pack of Tastykakes.
It was a warm summer evening, and as I walked home I was struck by how still the night was, the chirping of crickets and the whoosh of traffic from Cottman Avenue behind me the only sounds. Until I heard the unmistakeable revving of a car roaring down the street, and the unmistakeable screech of brakes as it stopped dead, in the middle of Whitaker Avenue, right next to where I was walking.
I looked over, saw the teenage boys—four of them, I think—leaning out the windows. I faintly recognized one of them—Philadelphia is nothing if not provincial—but it was their expressions that I never forgot: the sneering, snarling looks of contempt, ones that sent a jolt of adrenaline careening through me. I knew that look. The look of the bullies who had found their next mark.
As a boy who was slight, studious, artistic and, to put it kindly, not exactly a pillar of burgeoning masculinity, I had five years earlier, at the age of six, found myself suddenly dropped into one of the most Darwinian environments around: the Catholic school schoolyard. I had used a nascent talent for caricature cartooning (my classmates loved being drawn) and the ability to vanish like a magician’s assistant when necessary to navigate the world of bullies from the get-go, developing an admirable alacrity for avoiding getting pummeled. The steely nuns were there to keep order inside, but before school, after school, and at lunch, it was every Catholic schoolboy for himself. I kept my head down, my back to the wall, and told myself I only had to make it to ninth grade, when I could escape for the friendlier climes of public high school.
But this night, in the dark on Whitaker Avenue, with no one around for a block in any direction, this was trouble. As the boys began hurling awful epithets from the car—still too awful to repeat, even now—I did the only thing I could think of: I began walking. Quickly. Running, I knew, would set them off, have them running after me, and no good was going to come of that. Brisk walking, however, showed respect (I know you can kick my ass, so I am gracefully retreating) without betraying what I felt inside (Help!).
It didn’t work. Two of the boys leapt out of the car and made a beeline right for me, promising, in far more vulgar terms, that there would be blood. Panicked, I broke out into a full-scale dash, knowing that I’d never outrun them but hoping someone would look out a window and stop what was coming. I dropped my bag from Mr. Grocer. As I bolted down the street, I thought I heard other voices—a neighbor, maybe—yelling at the boys. The next thing I knew, the car U-turned, the four boys all back inside, racing away, their mocking laughter fading in the distance.
A few minutes later, I walked in my front door. My mother, wiping the kitchen counter, expressed mild surprise. “I thought you were going to Mr. Grocer,” she said.
“Changed my mind,” I answered.
The humiliation of bullying—that which you suffered, and that which you witnessed but were too cowardly to intervene and stop—never really leaves you. It’s always there, somewhere under the surface, always making your reactions to oppression of the most vulnerable disproportionate. This is, I think, the one positive attribute one acquires from being bullied: You grow up more empathetic. Whether you were the girly boy, or the girl with the Coke-bottle glasses, the boy who was fat or the girl who was clumsy and awkward or the boy who was “a little slow,” you come into adulthood with a finer appreciation for people’s flaws and for forgiving them, while at the same time harboring a ferocious instinct to stop anyone else from experiencing what you did.
I think this is why I gave Karen Klein $50 last week, and why so many other people did, too. If you haven’t heard about Karen Klein, she is the Greece, New York monitor who was viciously bullied by a band of boys on a school bus, a heinous 10-minute verbal assault that was videotaped for kicks by one of the perpetrators, Lord of the Flies as kabuki theater. In the video, the boys talk about killing her, mock her, taunt her; one even tells her her family would rather kill themselves than be around her—Klein’s son is said to have committed suicide a decade ago. She devolved into tears, and yet they kept coming, kept on the attack, relentless. The video quickly went viral in a way its auteur clearly never imagined, igniting a firestorm of outrage that I think was really directed, in the end, at the boys’ parents: How could you raise sons so callous, so hateful, so soulless? And what is happening to us as a society?
I couldn’t watch the video, because I’ve lived the video, and also because Karen Klein looks like some of the older women in my only family, and it makes me insane to think about what I would do if some boys descended on my mother. But a kindred spirit, a writer named Max Sidorov, came up with an idea: raise $5,000 and send Karen Klein on a vacation, as a gesture that people were still good, that we shouldn’t give up faith in the restorative power of pouring a glass of the milk of human kindness. The resultant outpouring was beyond anyone’s dreams. As of yesterday, the campaign had raised a staggering $650,000—enough for Karen Klein to not only go on vacation, but to retire, hopefully to a nice, quiet place where she will never have to see one of these thugs ever again.
Klein went on the morning talk shows; two of the boys halfheartedly apologized, though I suspect that has more to do with the fact that they find themselves now bullied in the media, and are desperate to make it stop. The school district has vowed to investigate and punish, though that seems almost an afterthought. In the court of public opinion, Karen Klein won.
Unfortunately, though, in the court of the jaded 24-hour news cycle, that isn’t quite good enough. Already there have been contrarian viewpoints expressed, painting Karen Klein as an opportunist who has a lot of nerve even considering taking the money raised on her behalf. Writing in a blog for the Huffington Post titled, “Karen Klein Should Give the Money Back,” Chris Kelly gives a passing nod to the fact that, well, sure, kids shouldn’t be allowed to eviscerate a nice old lady, all while pressing his point that if she hadn’t been on the bus in the first place, none of this would have happened. Because the real problem, you see, isn’t that Karen Klein was bullied; it’s that she didn’t have the skills to be a bus monitor.
Thanks for clearing that up.
And of course you knew that Gawker, that monument to American cynicism, was going to chime in and it did, in a similarly titled post by Adrian Chen that out of the gate stated, “The fact that Klein didn’t do anything to deserve it is just one of the many reasons why she should decline the money raised in her name.” Chen goes on to make the argument that taking the money would transform her “from blameless victim to effectively the most highly paid reality television star in history.” It gets worse. How can Karen Klein take this money, the blog argues, when there are orphans who need it more?
This I can promise you: Neither of these writers was ever bullied as a child. And neither, it would appear, has any aptitude for charity or mercy. But they have plenty of guile, which is the currency that matters in America these days. I didn’t give Karen Klein money because she needs it—I gave Karen Klein money for the simple reason that I wanted to send a signal that there are good people left in the world. And it worked: The stunning haul she is due is a symbol that people recognize cruelty when they see it, and that they want to stand up and be counted—in this case, through donations—as saying, “This should not be tolerated.” It’s a gesture, people. Remember gestures? Holding doors for someone, letting someone else take that cab in the rain, giving up the seat on the bus for the pregnant woman, throwing a quarter into the baseball cap of the down-on-his-luck guy slumped against the outside of the Wawa? When did showing empathy become trite, passé? It’s fine to put money into the pocket of that fine American Kim Kardashian by buying her trashy fashions at Sears, but not fine to send a woman ruthlessly bullied a few bucks?
I don’t get it, and frankly, I’m glad I don’t. The good news is I am free to give my money to whoever I want. Chen and Kelly and the rest of the professionally jaded can start their own collection if they want to. I even have a suggestion: How about security protection for Karen Klein’s bullies? They’ve already received thousands of death threats. And if there is any karma, there will come a day when another group of boys will stop in the middle of the street as they’re walking home alone. I just hope I’m the adult standing behind his living room curtains watching when it does.