By Chez Pazienza: I still remember the heartbroken look on his face as he stood at my doorstep in his little green-striped shirt and Toughskins khaki shorts. His name was Doug and he lived up the street from me — and for some reason he desperately wanted to be my friend. He was my age, maybe five or six, and he’d come by every afternoon to ask me if I wanted to play with him since he didn’t seem to have many kids willing to. His eyes would always be fixed on the ground in front of him, as if he were a dog that someone had beaten into a perpetually submissive stance; he was never anything less than a pitiful sight. But I didn’t take pity on him; I didn’t question why his parents never seemed to be around and why I would always see him walking alone to and from the playground at the end of the block; I simply told him to go away, that I didn’t want to play with him and didn’t want to be his friend and didn’t want him in my house. When my mother would show some decency and humanity and invite him in, I’d wait for her to disappear from sight, then press him toward the door and tell him to get out. I’d say those exact words just before slamming the door in his face: “Get out.”
Believe it or not, they’re words that have haunted me throughout a good portion of my life. Maybe I truly hurt Doug, maybe I was one of the first and would ultimately be one of the many — or maybe he shrugged it off and went on to live a very happy life. Either way, I’ve never fully forgiven myself for being cruel to someone at such a young age — someone who had only wronged me by trying to be my friend.
For some reason, I thought about this immediately when I heard the story of the middle-school kids in upstate New York who recorded an extended video of themselves mercilessly tormenting a 68-year-old widow to the point where she cried. If you haven’t seen the clip yet, it’s simultaneously one of the most heart-rending and infuriating things you’re likely to witness for some time. Captured on video for posterity, shot by a seemingly sociopathically detached group of young people who in all probability took great pride in what they were doing at the time, are ten-minutes of verbal and emotional torture directed at an elderly school bus monitor who’s done nothing to provoke them other than exist and be weak enough in their eyes to warrant the abuse and to most assuredly not fight back. As it always is, Karen Huff Klein was bullied simply because she was an easy target, and the kids who bullied her were right in their assessment: She didn’t fight back and she didn’t lash out; she just sat there and took it as they called her ugly, called her fat, said that her kid had killed himself — which her son in fact did, ten years ago — because he didn’t want to be near her. She remained as dignified as possible, even as she began to finally cry under the weight of all the vicious scorn begin heaped upon her.
Because we live in the age of social media, it took almost no time at all — literally, hours — for Karen Huff Klein’s story to be beamed around the world and for millions to respond to it. My initial reaction, like so many others’, wasn’t simply outrage but pure seething fury at what a bunch of kids had put this poor woman through. Like everyone else, I was disgusted at what I saw and substituted my own mother or grandmother in place of Karen Huff Klein; I fantasized about what brand of almighty vengeance I would exact on my loved one’s tormentors. I lamented the state of things and wondered where the hell we’d gone wrong in raising our children and whether there was any way back from the darkness our culture had apparently crossed over into some time ago. Were kids these days really this callous and lacking in empathy? Who would actually take pleasure in sadistic voyeurism at such a young age? What did it all mean for our future?
But then I considered something: my own youth. I admit that I occasionally think about what would have happened to me and my childhood friends had we grown up in the self-constructed, self-perpetuated Panopticon that today’s kids do. We were, for the most part, rotten little bastards — misanthropic terrors that didn’t really care what anybody thought and who certainly didn’t respect authority or our elders. Get enough of us together, in fact, and we could be downright cruel. But we didn’t do it because we were cold-blooded monsters — we did it because we submitted to the pressure of conforming to our peers, we hadn’t yet discovered how to stand on our own and stand up for what’s right and we didn’t understand that actions have severe and sometimes unintended consequences and that there were other people in the world who could be seriously damaged by the things we did. We just didn’t have the fully developed psychological and emotional tools in place to help us navigate the sometimes tricky gulf between right and wrong. We thought the world revolved around us because we were kids, and that’s how kids think. I wonder sometimes whether our crimes against decency were as heinous as the ones exhibited by the middle-school students on Bus 784 in Greece, NY and we were simply lucky enough to have never been able to put it on video and consequently suffer an internet backlash that brings the wrath of the world down on us.
That backlash against the kids who abused Karen Huff Klein, as well as the unrestrained show of support for Klein herself in the wake of the abuse, has already reached the level of ferocity we’ve come to expect from any viral sensation of this magnitude. Tens of thousands of dollars have been raised for Klein, a lifetime resident of the town of Greece who makes just a little over 15-grand a year working for the school system; she’ll be making the national morning show rounds over the next couple of days. The kids, meanwhile, have seen their identities researched and their names and pictures published by the cunning internet wizards over at 4Chan and police are now considering putting some of them under protection out of fear for their safety — this as police and the school district also consider what action can be taken against those very same students.
Thanks to the nature of our media these days, which constantly feeds information to us at a dizzying rate and generates new cultural storylines seemingly out of thin air as it goes, the young people involved in the verbal abuse of Karen Huff Klein won’t have the opportunity to think long and hard about what they did. They won’t get the chance to organically come to a point where they’re fully cognizant of the hurt they caused to a defenseless old woman; to wonder whatever happened to her; to regret their actions and silently wish she could forgive them. They won’t be able to do that because they’ve been publicly, instantaneously shamed by millions. In some ways, they have no idea how lucky they are that they’ve been spared their own torment — and yes, I do believe that, while certainly not all, many bullies grow to understand and be haunted by their cruelty. I know because I did. I was.
One of my very first memories is of causing pain to a little boy who didn’t deserve it — and it stays with me to this day.
These kids already know what they did and will be made to pay for it quickly and harshly.
They got off easy.