To the Manner Born

Who rules children's etiquette with impeccable manners and an iron fist? Linda Hill, of course. But you may call her Miss Hill.

Here is the gospel according to Miss Hill: "You have five seconds to make a good impression. It's packaging. You don't buy things in a yucky package, do you? And perhaps you've bought inferior products because they were in a nice package, haven't you?"

I have, I now realize. And that belated realization puts me on my guard. Etiquette intricacies that Miss Hill has lived and breathed for several decades are absorbed gradually by those in her company. She may or may not, for instance, be calmly critiquing my table manners as I attempt to eat and report at the same time. And so it was damned smart of me to arrive early, case the menu for something easy to eat, position myself with my back to the window and spend a few minutes absorbing the atmosphere of the Mount Vernon Country Club's lounge.

Excuse me. The polite version of what I meant to say was, thank heavens I arrived early, cased the menu for something easy to eat, positioned myself with my back to the window...

As for the atmosphere of the Mount Vernon Country Club, it is friendlier than the prevailing hoity-toity, private-club stereotype would have you believe, and certainly more relaxed. One of the tables I can see is occupied by eight women playing cards and speaking rapid-fire Spanish who may well have settled in for the afternoon. And the menu features a comfortingly old-fashioned touch: the Quiche of the Day. But I have my eye on something much simpler to eat correctly: a chicken sandwich. I am loaded for bear.

But my ammo is all wrong.
"I went to college at the age of forty and spent seven fun-filled years getting a degree," Miss Hill tells me, summing up her professional training.

"Wow," I say, taking in her flawless complexion and unlined face. "How old are you now?"

"That's not a polite question," she says sharply. "A woman who will tell you her age will tell you anything."

"That's true," I agree. "I'm forty, and I'll tell you...whatever...uh..."
Clearly, Miss Hill does not want to know whatever. Why should she? And suppose I were lunching with the president of some important republic? He wouldn't want to know, either.

Miss Hill is fond of pointing out that in this global economy, any of us could wind up dining with anyone, anywhere. But then, as she also likes to point out, none of us are born knowing the crucial social mores that range far beyond table manners, important as those may be.

"How to walk, how to sit, how to stand, the importance of good posture, how to shake hands appropriately," she says. "Good heavens--without practice, how do you get through these things?"

Miss Hill's young students will be getting plenty of practice this fall at the Colorado School of Protocol and Etiquette after a disappointing summer in which she offered several children's camps devoted to Dining Skills and Etiquette but got no takers. Now, however, children and their parents are apparently back in gear, and such classes as Teen Etiquette (Ages 13 to 17) are filling up fast. The campus for these studies will be the grounds of the Mount Vernon Country Club, where students are allowed to dine in the dining rooms, walk up the staircases--avoiding the dreaded "caboose-swinging motion"--and introduce themselves to staff members with a correct handshake and the words "Hello, I'm (your name here)." A beat and then, if there's no verbal response forthcoming, "And you are...?"

"Teaching them here gives the children an opportunity to be in this environment," Miss Hill explains. "To see that it's friendly and not intimidating." In fact, they will deduce the same about their fellow students, who, Miss Hill insists, are not culled strictly from the upper classes. "No, no, no," she says. "They come from all parts of the city, and they haven't all been Anglo. I feel so strongly that manners ought to be nothing less than a birthright for every child."

Miss Hill sighs contentedly, sips her white-wine spritzer, dabs at her lips with her napkin. "As you can see," she says, "I love what I do."

Slyly, Miss Hill invites me to observe several prosperous-looking men at a table near ours, one of whom is talking with his mouth full--"and thinking no one will notice," Miss Hill adds. Another is "attacking his food as if it's going to escape." I look. What I see is not the Viking debauch Miss Hill has led me to expect, but a scene somewhat more genteel than an average night at my own dinner table. It makes me want to ask: Have you ever had the feeling that a partly masticated bite of food was just...resting...in a far corner of your mouth, and you had forgotten all about it while telling some riveting anecdote? Oh, never mind. A woman who would ask that could reveal all sorts of revolting things, and revolting has no place at the Colorado School of Protocol and Etiquette.

Instead, while attempting a stealth napkin dab of my own, I ask: "Have you always wanted to work with children?"

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