I’m growing very fond of Jill Tucker, a “journalist” at the San Francisco Chronicle who gives me lots of meat for my blogging. A couple of weeks ago, I looked at her incurious (some might say lazy) reporting about the decision the Oakland Children’s Museum’s made to cancel a controversial art show consisting of pictures that Palestinian children had allegedly drawn. (I say allegedly because people more familiar with fakes than I think it is highly unlikely that real children created the pictures.)
Tucker ignored entirely the far-Left, anti-American, anti-Israel, antisemitic nature of the group sponsoring the show, and managed to make it sound as if these works were equivalent to Jewish children’s drawings and poems from Terezinstadt. With few exceptions, those child artists died in Auschwitz’s gas chambers. They didn’t shop at local malls or swim in Olympic pools. And when doctors attended those Jewish children, their goals were malevolent, not humanitarian.
Tucker is at it again, this time with a report purporting to explain that the teacher who punished students for saying “bless you” in class had no anti-religious motivation whatsoever. To give Tucker credit where credit is due, this story starts with good spin. She announces, loudly and repeatedly, that the kids who received penalties weren’t exercising ordinary good manners when they said “bless you;” they were, instead, acting out solely to irritate their teacher:
It all started when high school health teacher Steve Cuckovich disciplined his freshman students at Will C. Wood High School last week for repeatedly disrupting class by responding to sneezes with a overenthusiastic chorus of “Bless You.”
The sneezer would then thank each giver of the blessing individually.
Cuckovich, as teachers have done since time immemorial, decided to nip that behavior in the bud by docking student grades for the offense.
See? Totally innocent. Naughty students; appropriately strict teacher. Every one of us remembers those days from our own high school years.
How in the world, then, did this story become a world-wide kerfuffle? Tucker knows who was at fault: A busy-body parents and Fox News turned garden-variety classroom discipline into a Christian-outrage cause célèbre:
A parent saw the deduction and made a phone call – not to the teacher or the principal or even an elected official, said district Superintendent John Niederkorn.
And that’s about when Cuckovich found a local Fox TV news reporter in his classroom asking why he was banning “Bless you.”
Our good soldier Tucker describes the way in which religious zealots around the world (i.e., Christians) got their knickers in a twist merely because a teacher clamped down on disruptive behavior. She explains carefully, with myriad quotations yet, that Cuckovich’s only sin was the fact that, in the heat of the moment, he punished the students for saying “bless you,” rather than focusing more generally on the fact that they were disrupting his class.
So far, I am totally with Tucker. she’s right. Absolutely right. Her damage control is pitch-perfect. Tucker starts singing badly out of tune, however, when confronted by Cuckovich’s own conduct immediately after the fact. That was when he got the opportunity to explain in his own words what happened in that classroom (emphasis mine):
Cuckovich, however, inadvertently added to the controversy by explaining to reporters that he used the situation as a teaching moment, educating students on the origins of “bless you.”
It appeared to be an effort to reason with students before punishing them, but it added fuel to the religious fury.
“The blessing doesn’t really make any sense anymore,” he told the Sacramento Fox TV news affiliate. “When you sneezed in the old days, they thought you were dispelling evil spirits out of your body. So they were saying God bless you for getting rid of the evil spirits. But today, I said, really what you’re doing doesn’t make sense anymore.”
I love that Tucker-ish word “inadvertently.” You see, the problem wasn’t what Cuckovich did. It was that he explained what he did. Tucker seems to find nothing unnerving about a public school teacher who lectures students about the fact that “God bless you” is an archaic throwback to a primitive time when people actually believed in God and evil, and then explicitly censors that term in his classroom.
So there you have it: In Tucker-world, it’s always entirely accidental when a teacher displays religious hostility in a classroom.
I don’t doubt that Cuckovich was legitimately irritated by genuinely bad behavior from his students. Had Cuckovich limited himself to explaining the ancient origins of a commonly used phrase, while reminding students that disruptive behavior is always subject to penalty, there would have been no story. What makes the whole story newsworthy, and Tucker’s spin silly, is the fact that Cuckovich launched into what amounts to a “God is dead” lecture to justify his decision and then took the extra step of explicitly prohibiting the phrase “God bless you.” You begin to get the feeling that this guy is an atheist (which is perfectly okay, as I’m periodically one myself), and that he wants to pass that belief-less system on to his health class students (which is not okay).
As it is, even thought I’m an intermittent atheist and periodic agnostic myself, I’m willing to take all the blessings I can get. We live in a tough world, and there’s a lot to be said for a little good feeling coming from both those around us and, assuming he’s not dead, from God himself.
UPDATE: I got the following comment. Assuming that the author of the comment is who he says he is, it certainly deserves to be raised up to the level of the post itself:
Steve Cuckovich is my father-in-law, so I am speaking from experience that this had nothing to do with religion. He is not an atheist (not that there would be anything wrong if he was), sent all 3 of his kids to Catholic school, and has attended church most of the Sundays of his life. He is open to the views of others, including his Jewish son-in-law (me), and has been a dedicated and caring teacher for nearly 40 years. He teaches many freshmen and sees it as important to teach them that it is not always appropriate to blurt things out, such as at a wedding or a funeral or, yes, even in the middle of a classroom lesson, particularly if the purpose is create a distraction, which is clearly what was the case in this instance. The Chronicle has been the most accurate reporting on this whole issue (or really non-issue), although even they had things wrong. This is an example of Fox News taking one quote out of context (the one about evil spirits, which has nothing to do with the reason for the “ban”) to create a false religious scandal. Nearly every news story thereafter has repeated this out-of-context statement, which has led to hate mail and a lot of emotional turmoil for the family of a great man and excellent teacher.