Twenty-five strangers shift uneasily in their chairs
on the first day of class in this community college.
I see by their faces and the list of names
that they represent the world:
Sadejah, Jevaughn, Sandra, Pavelon, Jack––
collected in this time and place by fate––
Mona, Shaneiqua, Katya, Nydia, Tatiana, Spencer.
I too am nervous, as always, about the beginning.
Then suddenly from the hush a tremendous sneeze!
Chuckles about its size, then six or seven say at once
to a person they’ve never met before
Bless you/God bless you/Gesundheit,
and the sneezer says Thank you
and apologizes for not burying it
in the crook of an elbow or a flannel sleeve.
They may not know the Ancients saw sneezes
as good omens, that something so powerful
and spontaneous must be caused by the gods.
They may not know about when Xenophon
exhorted his soldiers in battle, and one of them
sneezed on the word deliverance, and
they all bowed down before God at the sound.
But in this era of division and mistrust, xenophobia
and tribe, I cherish this sweet instinct
to wish grace and health in the life of a stranger.
Let us all turn now toward the light
and pray for another blessing from the gods.
Steve Straight’s books include The Almanac (Curbstone/Northwestern University Press, 2012) and The Water Carrier (Curbstone, 2002). He is professor of English and director of the poetry program at Manchester Community College, in Connecticut, US.