The school bus conductor, the bullies and a $500,000 online gift
When children in New York posted a clip of a woman being reduced to tears, sympathetic viewers decided to make donations to right the wrong. David Usborne reports
Karen Klein, an upstate New York school bus monitor, could never have imagined that in a few short days she would become famous, not once, but twice.
First, the white-haired grandmother was seen on video (scroll down to view) being bullied and teased almost to destruction by the children she was meant to be minding. Then she was made whole again (and rich) by us.
How rich, we don't yet even know. But a fund set up for Ms Klein on a crowd fundraising website called indiegogo.com, which was then championed by members of the bigger online community reddit.com, had by yesterday afternoon brought in more than $500,000 (£320,000). That should be enough for her to retire, and in some comfort.
This all happened because of something as old as our species and entirely non-digital: our propensity to victimise the weak.
The digital dimension to Ms Klein's tale meant we were first able to witness what happened to her – one of the kids on her bus took a video of his peers pouring scorn on her for 10 mortifying minutes and then posted it online (for fun) – and then to respond to it with a global show of kindness as great as the original cruelty.
The sheer spite of the children, all in their early teens, almost ensured the video, called 'Making the Bus Monitor Cry', would go viral on the web as soon as it was posted.
Watch and you will witness a verbal stoning. Over and again, the children in their early teens curse her, call her a "fat ass" and a "troll". When she takes her glasses off to wipe away tears, one of her tormentors scolds: "Dude put the glasses back on I can't stand to look at your face."
As the bus rolls down the roads of Athena, near Rochester, the children threaten to stab her and urinate on her house. One accuses her of having herpes. The cruellest moment comes when a voice is heard declaring: "You don't have a family because they all killed themselves because they don't want to be near you." Ms Klein's oldest son took his own life 10 years ago.
Because what happened to Ms Klein, 68, was there for all to see, the normal hand-wringing, including questions raised about child-rearing in America today – has taken on a whole new scale.
She has been on CNN and breakfast television describing her hurt. Two of the boys have apologised to her, as has one of their parents. "My heart broke. I couldn't believe my son could treat another human being like that," said Robert Helms. At least four of the students are under police guard after being subject to multiple death threats.
By yesterday, however, another question loomed. While the existence of sites like reddit and indiegogo gives us the opportunity not just to voice dismay on behalf of Ms Klein but also to dig into our pockets to help out, is this going too far?
When will the amount of money raised for her cross the line from nice and generous to silly?
Forbes.com yesterday asked about a sympathy bubble. "At this rate the 'citizen's justice' payout could exceed half a million dollars, or, who knows, even a million. This is beginning to exhibit the 'irrational exuberance' that drives bubbles in markets (tulip bulbs, tech stocks, etc)."
There is already a parallel string of postings on reddit.com where the online community's members are asking if some of this money couldn't be given to other charitable causes.
With a few dollars from all of us, maybe we could bail out a country or two. You love Spain? Click here and help pay off its crippling debt.
Reddit has a history of unleashing sob-story bonanzas. Earlier this month a 23-year-old man recently diagnosed with cancer in Vancouver began a discussion on the website, merely asking fellow members to send him questions to answer, nothing more.
But his fellow Redderites decided he deserved more. To his surprise and astonishment, they raised $30,000 for him less than 24 hours. This is proving to be the experience of Ms Klein.
On top of the ever-growing cash mountain, she has just been given 10 tickets to Disneyland in Florida by Southwest Airlines. For now she plans to keep working the buses, she says.
But maybe this is more about us and our need to make right something that was so obviously wrong, a salving of collective guilt. And she is feeling better, it seems. "I've got these nice letters, emails, Facebook messages," she said yesterday
"It's like, wow, there's a whole world out there that I didn't know. It's really awesome."
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