The separation of church and state is nothing to sneeze at. The Founding Fathers weren’t playing around when they drew that line, debated though it may remain.
But one Tennessee school may have drawn that distinction a little too sharply recently, suspending a student who greeted another pupil’s sneeze with a “bless you.”
That’s right. Politeness is not dead but it is also not politically correct.
Eighteen-year-old Kendra Turner was handed a mini-vacation from school after she dared offer a classmate the courtesy at Dyer County High School. Unfortunately for Turner, seems the teacher had a ban on the phrase and did not appreciate the girl saying she had a First Amendment right to utter it. Turner told a TV station the teacher said she wasn’t allowing “godly speaking in her class.” Another student’s photo of the classroom shows a list of other words banned by the teacher in her room: dumb, stupid, my bad, hang out.
Stupid, I get. Stupid is as stupid does, or so said Forrest Gump’s momma. And maybe “my bad” is a little lowbrow although I’d undoubtedly be bounced from the teacher’s classroom if she heard me speak on a regular basis. I wonder how the teacher feels about those other seven special words you once couldn’t say on TV.
While some in Kendra’s corner are chalking up this incident as a fight over religious intolerance, I’m more prone to see it as a debate of etiquette. The high school senior didn’t throw “God” into the phrase, at the very least. But even if she had, frankly, the knee-jerk reaction to another’s sneeze is about as mindless to most as asking “how are you?” as a standard greeting. Although Kendra was reported as having told the teacher she learned the courtesy from her parents and pastor, it doesn’t appear her words were a cloaked bit of proselytizing. Those folks who insist on telling me to “have a blessed day” appear more religiously motivated and while the parting grace is not my cup of tea I take it in the spirit with which it is offered.
The teacher and school, for their part, said the hoopla was not over freedom of speech or religious but one of a class distraction. In other words, polite acknowledgment of another individual’s nasal irritation is somehow so terrible as to warrant removal. Apparently, the teacher isn’t a fan of the 1992 movie “Singles” in which a character played by Bridget Fonda who has scaled back her expectations and simply wants to find a guy who says “bless you” when she sneezes. She apparently doesn’t find it distracting.
Granted, real life is not a Cameron Crowe movie. However, reality can still be a place where a little civility goes a long way. Collectively, society clucks its tongue at generations growing up without a sense of responsibility, respect or any clue about basic niceties. Isn’t allowing a polite response a step in the right direction?
Of course, banning “bless you” isn’t necessarily going to turn the younger set into a legion of angry or detached minions, creating the need for more Columbine locks and school safety plans. Likewise, the dying art of holding a door or giving up a seat to the elderly and pregnant doesn’t signal the beginning of the Apocalypse. Life will go on without the phrase “excuse me” and let’s toss “I’m sorry” out, too, while we’re at it. Yet, there is a reason we call them pleasantries. They make the world a little more, well, pleasant.
And the schools in this world are supposed to be places of learning. The lesson here? Stick with gesundheit.
Michelle Durand’s column “Off the Beat” runs every Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at: email@example.com or (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. Follow Michelle on Twitter @michellemdurand. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org.