Intolerance is nothing to sneeze at. Neither is a sneeze. Kendra Turner, 17, a student at Dyer County High School in Newbern, Tenn., found that out the hard way when she was sent off to the principal’s office. She had said “bless you” when a fellow student sneezed in class.
“Bless you” is on a list of forbidden words and phrases that her teacher barred in class. Others include my bad, hang out, dumb, stupid and stuff. Miss Turner, 17, served an “in-school suspension” for the rest of the class period, and she should count her blessings (silently) for not having preceded “bless you” with “God.” That might have been a capital crime.
An assistant principal insists the punishment fit the crime, telling the Dyersburg State Gazette that teachers can set their own classroom rules as long as they’re “reasonable.” Helping kids build a good vocabulary is a great idea, but some of the words forbidden at Dyer County High strikes us as, well, “dumb.”
The silly stuff is not only suffered in high school. Leon Gardner, an assistant professor of chemistry, marks down a student’s grade for saying “bless you” in his class at the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick, Ga. The activist group Campus Reform reports that the offenses that offend the professor include talking with classmates unrelated to class participation, being late for class, being unprepared for class, interrupting the professor during his lecture for matters that should have been addressed before class, using a cellphone, and sharpening a pencil during class.
Rude and boorish conduct is fair for a markdown, but good manners? Like the sneeze that provokes it, the evocation “bless you” is at worst a momentary disruption, like a sneeze. “We are taught that it is polite to say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes,” the sixth commandment of Professor Gardner sets out for his classes. “However, if you say this while I am talking, it is not polite, it is very rude.”
It’s an ancient custom of almost every culture to say something reassuring when a person sneezes. Tiberius Caesar never failed to say “be well” or “be gone, omen” at a sneeze. Aristotle speculated that sneezing was thought to be something “divine” because it originates from the head, the seat of wisdom. The modern phrase, “May God bless you,” is often attributed to Pope Gregory as a short prayer to invoke divine protection against the plague. Nobody is sure because it goes back to earliest written history. The invocation has survived — every modern president ends speeches with it — because it’s a good wish, if not a prayer.
Nevertheless, the intolerant among us gag on good wishes. They’re adding “bless you” to the fast-growing index of forbidden words and phrases of the left. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook is campaigning to ban “bossy” because to hear it might make girls think less of themselves. The New York Times shuns “burly” to describe Michael Brown, the 6-foot-4, 290-pound shooting victim in Ferguson, Mo., because it’s “a word with a racially charged history.” (Who knew?) A mayor of the District of Columbia once fired a budget aide who used word “niggardly” because some people who took offense couldn’t be bothered to find a dictionary to learn that “niggardly” means “stingy,” and is unrelated in any way to the fearsome “n-word.”
Language and manners, alas, are much abused. If teachers and professors and mayors won’t defend them, who will?