Did Karen Klein Do the Right Thing? Bullying and the Limits of 'Turn the Other Cheek'
Maybe it was the tragic trifecta of bangs, glasses, and braces that marked me a prime target on bus rides to Northmont Middle School in the fall of 1997. It could have been a certain demeanor, a silliness that peaked after eight class periods and liked making girlfriends laugh, usually through outbursts of song. Maybe it was something less obvious, a sensitive spirit that peers, angry and hardened by who knows what, could sniff out. For whatever reason, Tara sniffed out me.
Tara lived on Rankin, a newly developed street three past Herr Street, down which I walked every morning at 7:10 to catch the bus. The mornings were okay, mostly; I'd slide into a military-green seat near the front and look intently out the window, avoiding eyes with Tara and her posse of highschoolers as they boarded. Tara had long brown hair and wore Nike Jordans; she displayed the brashness of the women I had seen on The Real World, which I had sneakily watched in my grandmother's basement the summer prior. A mere 13 to my 12, Tara boasted about boys and mocked dumb teachers and threatened to "beat up the bitches" who crossed her. Even then I dimly perceived a certain chaos in her home; she had an older brother in and out of jail, and her father was gone.
The afternoons were when it began. I learned early in the year that my loud singing had drawn Tara's attention—the last thing you want from a bully—so on the rides home I kept my head low and spoke rarely. But as we were about 10 minutes from my house, Tara and her cousin Jo would start hissing at me, for everyone to hear, "Look at that dumb bitch!" "What are you wearing?" "What are you going to do, cry all the way home?" Janine and Lauren, two friends, said nothing, fearing trial by association. The driver never intervened. On it went for the majority of seventh grade, once escalating into hitting—but I never said a word back.
Karen Klein didn't say much back either. The 68-year-old grandmother of eight from upstate New York endured verbal torture from four middle-school boys, one of whom recorded the encounter on his cell phone and posted it on YouTube last week. In "Making the Bus Monitor Cry," the teens hurl taunts like, "You don't have a family because they all killed themselves because they didn't want to be near you." (Klein's son committed suicide 10 years ago.) One boy pokes Klein's arm with a book, saying if he were to stab her, his knife would go through her "like butter."
Just as disturbing as these cruel taunts, which only worsen throughout the 10-minute film, is that Klein never responds. An adult with the clear authority in the situation (ironically, bus monitors are hired precisely to stop bullies), Klein stays seated, eventually crying. The scene is both heart-wrenching, drawing outraged calls for the boys to be punished as well as thousands of threatening text messages, and a bit unsettling.
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