Karen Klein morality play: Forgiveness for the bus bullies?

AP AP Bullied bus monitor Karen Klein speaks during an interview, Thursday, June 21, 2012, in Greece, N.Y. First we … Continued



Bullied bus monitor Karen Klein speaks during an interview, Thursday, June 21, 2012, in Greece, N.Y.

First we had the abusive, hateful kids, then the massive outpouring of kindness and generosity, then the kids’ expression of regret and finally, Greece, N.Y., bus monitor
Karen Klein’s statement that she “feels sorry” for the kids who abused her.

All that’s left is for a few words about the necessity of forgiveness and we can all feel good about ourselves and the world in which we live.

Maybe it’s me, but it’s all a bit too tidy, at least if we really are, or ever were, as upset by what happened to the bus monitor as we claimed. Don’t get me wrong, each of those steps is a part of what must happen, but it’s hardly enough.

Yes, the kids need to express regret, but that is only the first step in a longer process, which needs to address the hurt they caused an actual person, not simply the anger we feel about kids behaving so meanly. Let’s see if they can move beyond regret to a clear sense of what they did, why they did it and a plan of how to keep from doing it again.

Let’s see if the bus bullies can move beyond expressions of regret in the abstract to actually seeking forgiveness from the one person they truly harmed and offering a program of deeds which might help repair the damage done. That’s what distinguishes regret, which is about the desire to feel better in one’s own skin, to genuine atonement, which is as the word suggests, is about becoming more at-one with the woman they hurt.

Before we simply praise Klein’s feeling sorry for the kids, let’s be clear that such easy acceptance of the circumstances, is the very trait which failed Klein on the bus. Although no victim needs to justify their actions – they are the victims after all – there is a vast difference between praising the ability to remain calm in the face of cruelty, and praising paralysis in the face of such cruelty.

And before anyone invokes the notion of turning the other cheek, let’s be equally clear about the fact that turning the other cheek is almost certainly about the dignity and efficacy of non-violent resistance, not failing to resist altogether.

Finally, if this story is to have any lasting meaning and our interest in it, to have any meaning beyond the voyeuristic, we have to ask what each of us can do to make such incidents less likely to occur. We can all ask who is bullied or demeaned in our own communities or even families. Who is vulnerable and how can we make them less so?

The Karen Klein story is ending, as it should. The real work however is just beginning, also as it should.

The Karen Klein story is nothing if not a public morality play, and the great poet-theologian of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best, when describing the need to address moral failings in society, the theme of all morality plays. He said that we must always know that while only a few may be guilty, all are responsible.

Did Hirschfield get it wrong –or right? Tell On Faith in the comments below or On Twitter, what does the bullying of Karen Klein –and the viral response –say to you about human nature?

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Brad Hirschfield An acclaimed author, lecturer, rabbi, and commentator on religion, society and pop culture, Brad Hirschfield offers a unique perspective on the American spiritual landscape and political and social trends to audiences nationwide.

    It’s you. Omnsicient and rather unpleasant, truth be told.

    The story is one of the incredible cruelty of youth (surely even you were once young?) and the forebearance of a well-meaning but unprepred elder in the face of that cruelty.

    In the end, her tears were staggeringly effective–far more effective than the self-satisfied lecture you certainly would have given them if you found yourself in her situation–and I’m sure those bullying adolescents will remember this life lesson their entire lives.

    I highly doubt, however, your lecture would have had the same impact.

  • Chuckled

    God bless her. She has a much bigger heart than I do. If someone, even kids, did that to my grandmother, I would have a VERY hard time forgiving him.

  • jg021566

    Bless her. The United Sates is angrier now than it has ever been in my lifetime. And now this hatred has been passed down to our children through our own actions like osmosis.

    I am not sure whose fault it is but I am stating it as a fact. Hatred is out of control. Think about your own mother. Now think about her crying. How would that make you feel?

    We cannot afford to keep acting this way. If we do, we are finished as a nation forever. Look at what has been going on lately. We are tearing ourselves and our country to shreds.

    You want to know why the economy is the way it is now? Because of our hatred. You cannot turn on the tv or read the newspaper without seeing one politician telling you how bad the other one is.

    Think about it. We live in a country where we elect the politician who can show us how much more hateful he can be than the other guy. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Hatred is a bad thing.

    I have spent my entire adult life studying this phenomenom of hate. I have done research at the best colleges in the world. I have worked alongside Presidents and the best social scholars in the world.

    I have finally come to a conclusion of why this epidemic of hatred is spreading so wildly out of control. And my conclusion is this: I have no earthly idea why.

    No democracy in the A.D. era has ever made it more than 300 years. They have always ended up self-destructing. Now it is our turn. And you know what, we don’t stand a chance (now bring on the hate mail).


    It’s not hatred; it’s psychopathy. Quite seriously, study it closely and you will see its effects everywhere and you will have your answer why.

    Now how to combat it is another question.

  • sbuck

    Perhaps instead of looking at politics to find the root of this country’s failings, you should look to the cusp of American individualism and the capitalist ethic.
    While once we took care of each other, we now sneer at those who cannot hold their own, and say, in effect, “We got ours — and we’re not giving you any. Get your own.” People now feel they must get whatever they can and the other guy be damned. And pay more of our money to help others? Not me — I worked hard. Obviously, if someone needs help, they didn’t work hard enough.
    Study this, and understand how it has undermined the union movement, which was the sole way that people could protect themselves against the capitalist juggernaut. And guess what? We have lost. They now control us, pay us as little as they choose, get rid of us when they want more profits.
    Was it this way when we lived on the frontiers of our country? No. People banded together and helped each other as best they could, Nowadays, we scoff and call that weak, un-American, and even communistic.
    We have become as stupid as they hoped we would be. No revolution fo us. We’re way to busy watching TV.

  • pentagon40

    I know I will be in the minority here but this is how I feel…This woman was placed as a bus monitor to maintain order on the bus…She is a grown woman surrounded by 11-12-13yr olds.

    The first thing she should have done when any student made derogatory remarks to her was to “Make” the student give her his name to write down and inform him/her that he should be quiet or they will be reported.

    For her to sit there and not say anything and continue to be verbally abused is shameful in that she “allowed” kids to do this..Let’s stop with this picture painted of a little old white haired lady who is virtually helpless on that bus…

    She was assigned to protect the children on that bus from the exact type of abuse she received…If a bully had directed their ire at some other student instead, it is clear the monitor would have reacted the same way and been non existent while sitting there. She was not fit for the job, period…..

  • Hippo3

    To pentagon40:

    You’re probably a strong, assertive person who can’t believe this woman didn’t do anything to protect herself.

    Perhaps she didn’t feel up to it or perhaps she couldn’t think of anything to say. As people age, their coping skills deteriorate and their reaction times slow down.

    Perhaps she’s too old for this job and should have retired, but could not afford to.

    It sounds to me like you’re blaming the victim. It’s not like she’s some NAVY Seal or anything.

  • Jacobjos

    Bullies expect their victims to just take it; most will stop if they face resistance.

  • ArkansasNative

    Good article. Here’s why:

    “He said that we must always know that while only a few may be guilty, all are responsible.” The author via Rabbi Heschel here is correct. It’s easy to catch sight of a specific situation and become passionate about it while simultaneously losing sight of the greater problem of which the situation is a part. Regardless of whether or not you feel Mrs. Klein did or even was capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of her job, you cannot deny that the boys on the bus were inexcusably cruel in their abuse of her. However, we would all do well to realize that this whole situation is indicative of a greater societal problem–one even more troubling that what specifically happened to Mrs. Klein in Greece, NY.

    The truth is that it’s really difficult to understand how what’s happening right now in our culture will impact our kids in the future. But this much seems evident enough to me: the standard of decency in this country has been lowered while our individual expectations have remained rather high. Regardless of to what you want to attribute this lowering of the standard (elevated vulgarity and general lack of regard for principle of mutual respect in popular television, music, news, and politics, for instance), politeness and respect for others is no longer seen as an overriding priority in interpersonal interaction. However, we as individuals continue to expend politeness and respect from others. So when someone falls short of the already lowered standard, their behavior seems shocking to us.

    I cannot say how many times I’ve see individuals treat others (especially in the service industry, as well as strangers in general) rudely, but who would undoubtedly react with great displeasure if they were treated by a stranger in the same manner. Our society should not hold a double-standard.

    Further, it’s really troubling to me that when kids mess up (and these kids REALLY messed up) parents are almost never held responsible. It’s not on

  • wearedoomed1

    I think the fact that bus monitors are even deemed to be necessary tells us something about our society.

    You want a program of deeds for atonement? Have them clean bedpans in a nursing home for a year.

  • wearedoomed1


    It is possible for capitalism/individualism to coexist with the need to help others. We have a lot of social programs and safety nets in place to assist those who need a helping hand. All that’s asked in return is that people really TRY to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop seeing themselves as “victims” and gaming the system for their entire lives.

  • millerbetsyj

    These kids didn’t “mess up.” They’re budding sociopaths who all need more help than they’re likely to get.

  • millerbetsyj

    Children??? You think of these young animals as children??

  • Rebbu

    It’s easy to reduce these children to “animal” status and call them sociopaths. It takes exceptionally lazy and un-nuanced thinking to write them off so completely. But they are in fact children, whose brains (and therefore judgement and reasoning skills) will not physically be fully developed for another decade. The “mob mentality” has been so well-established in sociology literature that I am surprised you haven’t heard of it. We see it annually, when grown adults who would at other times appear nice, productive members of society trample each other on the day after thanksgiving in order to save $5 on a sweater, or $10 on a t.v. so that they can better celebrate their most holy day of the year. Children are particularly susceptible to mob mentality. They need to be taught that what they did was wrong, and that when someone does something so terribly hurtful to another human being, they need to make amends.

    those kids treated that bus monitor as though she was not a thinking, feeling human being. Treating them as though they are not thinking, feeling human beings compounds the problem, rather than solves it.

    please read the post below by jg021566 – and open your mind.

  • njglea

    You’re right, Mr. Hirschfield, but why do you rush to judgement and suggest everyone has forgotten the incident? It’s human nature to think, “They’re just kids and they didn’t really mean it.” It’s human nature to give kids another chance. And it’s not easy to get to the bottom of it.

    Last night I had a conversation with my 9th grade grandson and his friends about what happens when kids get to Junior HIgh. Meanness seems to be a part of moving out of grade shcool for some. (A friend was a Junior High teacher and said his students regularly told him to f*** off. Can you imagine?)
    My grandsn said it was adolescence (puberty) and that 7th graders feel powerless because they came from being the “top” in grade school and are now the “bottom”. Parents, teachers and kids need to talk about this kind of behavior and make it clear that it is not accepatable. Ever.

  • njglea

    The revolution will be at the ballot box. Vote only for independents and democrats who are reasonable and care about 99% of us, instead of just he top 1%.

  • rob_jenkins2000

    Have you ever noticed how in our American culture, you’re not supposed to be angry? She’s simply following the societal script. I know people get onto me if I stay angry about something. I’m just supposed to “let it go”, etc…. I used to think it was because it is true, if you hold on to anger and brood forever it can have a bad effect. But, we’ve turned being angry, which is a catalyst to demand change, into a no-no in our society. We try to medicate it away, etc. rather than change the bad things in our society which cause the anger in the first place. It’s called denial, and it can lead to some pretty bad stuff in and of itself.

  • rob_jenkins2000

    And, it’s exactly what our oppressors, or those who transgress against us want. Because, you know, that way they can abdicate responsibility if by denying our anger, we won’t hold them accountable to the extent that they should be…..

  • rob_jenkins2000

    Ah yes, pander to them…. let’s draw out the process by molding , shaping pandering, three steps forward and two steps back as a process. How inefficient, Stomp em a new and be done with it and wrap this up by lunch time and the problem is solved. If it needs to be repeated fine. Their kids, we’re the adults. let them understand the paradigm and they’ll learn much more quickly how to subordinate themselves and it will get them much farther in life and education as opposed to teaching them that life is an eternal negotiation.

  • Skowronek

    It’s particularly interesting because anger usually has so much ENERGY behind it. Clearly some people are too angry, too often and it harms them (eventually) – but it can be used to effect change, too.

    She may be more hurt now than angry – some people first feel hurt, then anger, then it diminishes. Or maybe she is very angry, but doesn’t wish to discuss it with the world at large.

    I don’t think we have any right to demand anything from her whatsoever. I am terribly saddened by what those kids said to her and if it had been my kids, well, I would be in a TOWERING rage and they would be not only begging her for forgiveness, they would also be working either for her, or for someone else, for the entire summer. Gratis. Doing every bit of scut labour that needed to be done and could be done by a kid of that age/strength/size.


    $20 says that those kids are just like their parents and that they are not going to get any better.

    Until the next Columbine.


    Have the kids or their parents done anything WORTHY of forgiveness?

    If not, bloviating demands for such from puffed-up self-appointed guardians of public rectitude (usually preachers from some sect or cult) are complete and total bull.

    Last week, there was an article on the church which the guy who took all those bad weird bath salt drugs and tried to eat some other guy’s face off; and his minister said “We must try to forgive”. Forgive? He tried to EAT THE OTHER GUY’S FACE OFF. And that church is STILL against gay marriage. See the hypocrisy?

  • ArkansasNative

    The APA estimates that approximately 1% of the total population is “sociopathic” or “psychopathic.” While I understand your passionate response to what these kids did, it’s important not to misdiagnose the real problem. It’s doubtful that these boys are sociopaths, at least in the traditional sense of the term. Further, if they were sociopaths, it’s doubtful any amount of therapy would actually help them, at least as far as modern psychology understands sociopathy today. There are some good articles out there on researchers attempting to recognize early signs of sociopathy or psychopathy and figure out a effective treatment. So far, however, such measures have met with little verifiable success.

  • haveaheart

    Having once been the target of meanspirited bullying, I feel sadness and real empathy for Ms. Klein. What a horrible scenario to have to endure.

    What I do have to wonder, though, is: What was the job — as bus monitor — that she was supposed to be doing? What are a bus monitor’s responsibilities?

    If those responsibilities include maintaining some level of control over the behavior of the kids on the bus, why was she hired by the school system to do a job she clearly wasn’t strong and imposing enough to do? She’d retired from the job of driving a bus, so clearly she is up in her years.

    If, on the other hand, her job was just to ride along and report bad behavior (did she have a cell phone or radio for doing this?), why did she not report it as it was occurring? Surely she must be aware that many kids’ parents will accept the lies of their little darlings over the truths told by an aging bus monitor.

    Ms. Klein is much better off out of that scenario. I hope she finds some part-time employment that is better suited to her capabilities and termperment.

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