SF Chronicle assures us that the story about the teacher who banned “God bless you” was just a tempest in a teapot *UPDATED*

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.

God bless you!

 

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.

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  • Charles Martel

    Cuckovich might want to start inveighing against “goodbye,” which is derived from “God be with you,” which is plainly not a proper thing to say in a government school where we know =wink= =wink= that God is an outmoded, medieval concept.

    Next, he might want to take on all of the common expressions that have a biblical origin. Here’s a link:

    http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/bible-phrases-sayings.html

    PS: I can see where Cuckovich may have been right about his kids doing elaborate “God bless yous” as a way of being smart-assed. His attempt at explanation, though, was typical of tone-deaf, badly educated people, which too many high school teachers are. As for Tucker, she is a perfect example of the blind woman who stumbles into an elephant’s ass and says it’s the most exhilarating spa facial she’s ever had.

  • JKB

    Well, I was under the impression that the blessing was given as it wasn’t that long ago, a sneeze pretty much meant you would be dead very soon, which aligns with Gesundheit (health, healthiness, salubriousness, soundness, wholesomeness).  I’d never heard the demon explanation.  

    But it does appear the teacher has tried to push his probable atheist beliefs and the students found they could push his buttons.  Good for the kids.

  • SADIE

    G-d bless you!
     
    Right back atchoo ;)

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    Some of the clowns in my high school mastered the art of coughing “a-choo” so it sounded almost exactly like “f*** you” but could still maintain plausible deniability.

  • http://connectthedots2006.blogspot.com ConnectTheDots

    Let’s end the controversy now and adopt the Seinfeld concept: “You are so good looking” when somebody sneezes.

  • gary9877

    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.

  • Mike Devx

    gary9877, That was a good explanation and defense.  Everyone deserves a mulligan every once in a while.

    Mr. Cuckovich’s explanation of the origins of saying “Bless You” for sneezing is such a mulligan, since its historical origins are entirely irrelevant to disruptive student behavior.  (If Mr. Cuckovich had considered the historical origins of the saying to be both positive and still relevant to today’s society, would that make the students’ behavior any more acceptable?  No.  In addition, this is the first time I’ve heard that particular explanation of historical origin… evil spirit expulsion on every sneeze?  Interesting.)

    When our schools have become ideological brainwashing mills for every teacher with an ideological axe to grind – especially in tearing down conservative cultural institutions – it’s easy to understand how statements that may be innocuous can raise suspicion.  99% of the time it’s deserved.  This looks like one of the rare cases where most of the criticism and attention is misguided.

     

  • Charles Martel

    gary9877, you’re a good and loyal son-in-law to come to Steve Cukovich’s defense in what I imagine you see as a hostile quarter. If you are doing the same on other blogs where your father-in-law is being criticized, you are doing yeoman work.

    It’s a sign of the times that a teacher disciplining smartass students and following up his ban with what can be taken as a disdainful statement about religion got blown up to the extent that it did. This is a parlous age—our country is very divided, and what might have been seen as a fairly innocent episode 40 years ago is now taken as more hostile and meaningful than it really is.

    The kids in your father-in-law’s class decided to yell out “Bless you!” every time somebody sneezed, knowing full well that because it’s a common (and almost automatic) response, they could pretend to be solitcitous and polite. He knew it was pure smartassery and banned it. While he was at it he explained the origin of the saying, pointing out that people in the Middle Ages saw a sneeze as a moment of danger, when the soul was open to leaving the body or being snatched by Satan.

    I think he was trying to explain why we know better now not as a rejection of any appeal to God, but simply because we know that a sneeze is not a life-threatening event, soul or no. I was going to say he probably should have anticipated how his explanation might sound to some, but on second thought, the man has suffered enough. Trying to accommodate yourself to every potential thin-skinned person, left or right, is a righteous drag. (I apologize for my statement about his level of intelligence or education. I vey much see what he was trying to do no matter how unastute I thought his execution was.)

    As for Jill Tucker, she works for the San Francisco Chronicle. That newspaper is to the left what the Volkischer Beobachter was to Germany in the 1930s. You may read it to learn the latest party talking points, but you must never expect to encounter anything approaching the whole truth in it.

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    Gary:

    Ditto to what Mike and Charles said.  I’m certainly willing to accept that the whole thing was a molehill raised to monstrous proportions.  Mostly, though, I was irked by Tucker’s writing.  She’s fairly reflexive in her hostility to anything that has to do with conservativism and religion, and her writing invariably reflects that.  Her rush to defend your father-in-law actually managed to make him sound less, rather than more, innocent of any malice in this affair.

  • SADIE

    I checked with Moses (askmoses)
     
    Although not technically part of Jewish Law – Halachah, the custom of saying gezuntheit, tzu gezunt, labreeyut, or G-d bless you is considered a mannerly custom. It is written in the Talmud that the Patriarch Jacob was the first person to become ill before passing on. Before that, people would sneeze and die. When G-d infused the soul into Man, He “blew it” into Adam’s nostrils. Thus, when it came time for the soul to be returned to its Maker, it would leave through the same portal it arrived.

    The Patriarch Jacob was the first person to become sick. Before that, people would sneeze and die

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    What I find interesting is how the Left co-opts people. If you are in a Leftist organization, like the teacher’s unions, it almost doesn’t matter what the individual desire is. The only thing that matters is the government’s authority and the best way to expand and enlarge upon it. Those that say things which can become a skirmish in the culture war, don’t have much choice on this. The anti-Leftists attack because the organization is the authority, not the individual. The Leftists defend and counter-attack, because it doesn’t matter to them what a person’s free will is or that they might take a stance ideologically incompatible with Leftist unions and school policy.

     This is the danger of placing too much power on the federal government. It incites people to attack and defend, based upon their own self-survival, rather than anything to do with the local situation. And this was brought about because Leftist organizations gain in size the more the federal government has the power to force people to suppress their own will. This in turn trickles down to teachers and other people who are part of Leftist unions, because they don’t have a choice.

     

  • Mike Devx

    Ditto, Ymar.  As government extends its reach into every aspect of our lives, *everything* becomes political.  Everything!  it’s depressing.

    Live free or die!  Small government!  Go Tea Party!