A few days after a 17-year-old Dyersburg student earned a trip to the principal’s office and a brief in-school suspension for saying “bless you” after a fellow student sneezed, a professor at the College of Coastal Georgia is making headlines for banning the same words in his class and threatening to deduct points from the final grades of students who say them.
In the case of Dyersburg student Kendra Turner, the words “bless you” were among a list of words-along with “dumb,” “stupid,” “my bad” and “hang out”-that her teacher had forbidden students from speaking in class. When the teacher told Turner that “bless you” was for church and asked Turner why she said it, she responded that she was just being courteous. When the teacher asked who taught her that it was courteous to say those words, she said her pastor and parents. That response earned her the aforementioned trip to the office and an in-school suspension. School leaders later told Turner’s parents that her words were a distraction.
Leon Gardner, an assistant professor of chemistry at the College of Coastal Georgia, also has a problem with “bless you.” According to a report by Campus Reform, a ban of the words can be found among his rules on behavior on his introductory physics class syllabus.
Under the “behavioral deduction” section of the syllabus, Gardner says students’ grades will be lowered for saying “bless you.”
“We are taught that it is polite to say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes,” it continues. “However, if you say this while I am talking, it is NOT polite; it is very rude!”
The offense is listed along with interrupting him for handouts that were available prior to class time and sharpening a pencil as the worst disruptive offenses, which could result in immediate 1 percent reductions of their final grades.
Campus Reform contacted Gardner to ask him about the policy but didn’t get very far.
“I don’t know why I should be addressing this to you,” Gardner said before hanging up.
I’m curious, dear readers, is this really where our country is headed? Is this a “thing” now? Is there a simmering, underground movement that would like to see this long-running, polite and reflexive American custom forever banned? Is there a growing push to somehow equate “bless you” with hate speech or something? Please, I beg you, enlighten me.
If this is, as the Dyersburg teacher’s ire implies, a chiefly religious matter, I can sort of follow the logic.
The original, post-sneeze use of the phrase “God bless you” is widely attributed to Pope Gregory the Great, who uttered the words when encountering sick, sneezing people during a bubonic plague epidemic in the sixth century. Other people throughout history have believed that a sneeze allowed the soul to escape the body through the nose and that saying “bless you” would prevent the devil from claiming it. Still others believed that a sneeze provided evil spirits with an opportunity to enter the body. The most common-and still widely believed-notion is that the heart stops when you sneeze and that, by saying “bless you,” you are either saying a quick prayer that it’ll start again or you’re welcoming the person back to life.
(Contrary to myth, however, the heart does not stop beating when you sneeze. When you inhale right before you sneeze, the pressure in your chest increases, decreasing blood flow to your heart. Your heart compensates by adjusting your heart rate momentarily, but its electrical activity remains constant. Although the built-up pressure can cause the heart to skip a beat for a few seconds, it is nothing to be worried about it.)
So, no, we’re not warding off death or the devil when we say “bless you” after someone sneezes. And, no, our hearts don’t stop when it happens. But so what? People are constantly coming up with new reasons to attack each other in our society. Just as a sneeze serves to reset the nasal passages after they’ve been overcome by debris, something as simple as saying “bless you” can reset our civility-even if the saying is technically inaccurate.
If “bless you” is over the line, other things could easily offend as well. “Be careful,” “watch out” and “drive safely” could be taken as insults to someone’s intelligence. A man opening a door for a woman could be seen as an insult to feminism. “I’m praying for you” could be seen as insulting and ignorant by someone who doesn’t believe in God.
It all comes back to God, I suppose.
One of the goals among a growing number of today’s educators-especially among those who work in the sciences-is to ultimately prove and promote the idea that God doesn’t exist. But if there is no God, if even God isn’t God, professor, then neither are you.
Someone sneezed. And someone said “bless you.” If you have a problem with that, go discuss it with the principal.
Former Chattanooga Pulse Editor Bill Colrus writes about (in no particular order) news, culture and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or learn more about him at billcolrus.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.