Kids’ Etiquette Class Finds Courtesy is the Main Course
Alderman William Henry (24th) would like to see his young constituents in the West Side Lawndale neighborhood escape poverty. He would therefore want them to learn which is the salad fork and the proper way to eat soup. The two matters, he says, are closely related. “We are trying to get our young folks not to feel they have a ghetto mentality,” he said. “We are trying to give them exposure to the best things in life.”And so he has created a 10-week class in etiquette for children in his ward. The 33 young people in the class lunched in the Berghoff Restaurant Monday to test their new skills.
Under the watchful eye of etiquette consultant Carolyn Shelton, they daintily held their forks and knives and cut bite-sized pieces of meat. Girls wore skirts. Boys wore jackets. Henry wore a double-breasted gray suit, a cream-on-cream shirt and a blue tie and matching handkerchief in his jacket. He circulated among the young diners, some of whom had not fully grasped the principles of fine dining. “Alderman,” one young lady asked, “where do I wipe this damn knife at?” Henry was dismayed. She was contrite. '”I’m sorry,'” she said, correcting her language, if not her table manners. '”Where do I wipe this knife at?”
Henry acknowledged that etiquette is not a high priority in the City Council. He said he is disappointed in the lack of courtesy on the council floor. “The proper language of respect is, ‘Mr. President, I rise to support, or to oppose, my distinguished colleague from the 44th Ward, or the 1st Ward,’” he said. It is rare that an Alderman is referred to as “distinguished colleague,” he said. On the contrary, Alderman Bernard Stone (50th) once called Alderman Luis Gutierrez (26th) “you little pipsqueak.” Henry said his distinguished colleagues “probably need some classes.”
The classes have taught Laquita Crockett, 12, a new way to walk. Before, “if you walked down the street, you walk all crazy, try to walk all cool,” she said. Shelton “told us to walk like young women.” Shelton has taught them good posture, proper dress and personal hygiene. For some, it is reinforcement of lessons from home. Shelton told the girls that young ladies do not chew gum outside their homes. Laquita no longer does so. Under Shelton’s tutelage, she has also been practicing eating chicken with a knife and fork. Shelton said that nice young people do not wear plastic curl caps in public. Danielle Hill, 12, has given up her curly hairstyle.
She has insisted on respect for elders, a lesson Sabrina Johnson, 11, paraphrased as, “You’re not supposed to stomp your feet and curse back at them.” It is a matter of self-respect, said Shelton, a Chicagoan and eldest of nine children reared in public housing in Houston. “I’m teaching them how to like themselves, how to clean their bodies, how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’” she said. Young people with self-respect will be less likely to become teenage parents. “I tell them, ‘You can’t wear shorts with everything hanging out. You can’t wear a blouse with everything hanging out.’” The boys have learned such expressions of outward respect as holding a chair out for a girl. The girls approve. “They treat us,” said Patricia Thompson, 15, “like a gentleman is supposed to treat a lady.”
The program is free to young people and will cost the Alderman’s office about $2,500. Monday’s lunch was co-sponsored by the Berghoff and the Illinois Restaurant Association. Henry will award cash prizes to five participants at the end. He is hoping that the program can be expanded next year with corporate support. His enthusiasm stems from his own youth, when he attended a church-sponsored program he describes as “kind of a finishing school.” “I had to learn to play the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ on the piano at the age of 12,” he said. He was also taught military marching and that essential inner city skill, golf. He still hates golf. But he believes that the courtesy he learned there and from a strict mother served him well, and will do the same for another generation.
The young people say they are delighted to learn etiquette, but some have found that old friends have not greeted their new ways with courtesy. “They say I was stupid to go to class to learn to walk when I already know how to walk,” said Danielle, who used her own sense of etiquette to respond. “I told them they were being stupid to say I was stupid because I want to learn.” – Barbara Brotman, Chicago Tribune, 1987
Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia