Manners for dinner

Tuesday, December 7, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:07 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tre Knoche stood chivalrously by his chair, waiting for a young lady to spy her place card at his table.

Tugging at her floor-length, red velvet skirt, Tess Sims smiled as Knoche pulled out her seat. He tucked her snugly beneath the rectangular table’s rim.

Seated, the pair of 10-year-olds stared at the spread before them. Tess asked the only reasonable question:

“Excuse me — could you please pass the butter?”

At Derby Ridge Elementary School, fifth-graders are learning more than their ABCs. This week, they’re minding their Ps and Qs, as well.

On Monday, Derby Ridge teacher Erin Wilson held her fifth annual Manners Dinner for her fifth-grade class. Since the week before Thanksgiving, Wilson has been giving the 10- and 11-year-olds daily, 10-minute lessons in proper table etiquette: what course comes first, how to pass food at the table and, yes, locating the salad fork amongst the battalion of utensils at a place setting.

Wilson’s curriculum culminates each year with a sit-down, fancy lunchtime feast for the students, after Thanksgiving and before their Christmas vacation.

The class exercise is more than a chance for Wilson to play Miss Manners. The teacher said she hopes to help her students feel comfortable and act respectful in social settings — important skills they will need beyond their education at Derby Ridge.

“I tell them, ‘Someday, you might be applying for a job, and as smart as you are, (employers) might want to invite you to dinner, and they’ll expect you to know how to behave and what you should do,’” Wilson said.

The teacher said the lesson has become popular among her students, because it motivates them to find the fun — versus the intimidation — in fine dining.

The pupils’ enthusiasm was palpable at noon, when Wilson’s 24 students peeled out of their science class and into the bathroom for a massive wardrobe change. Like a backstage play between acts, the students frenetically altered from one set of costumes to another, shedding their sweats, T-shirts and sneakers for crisp vests, long skirts and strappy heels.

Wilson’s classroom had morphed, too. Desks were robed in clean white linens, crystal goblets and sparkly silver. The candescence of a few lamps replaced the room’s harsh florescent lighting.

Mellow chords of instrumental music blanketed the schoolroom, as students tenuously indulged in ham, corn, mashed potatoes, rolls, salad and pie. Amidst the clink of forks against plates, the fifth-graders whispered a popular inquiry: do you pass food to the left or the right?

The scene was a stark contrast to the students’ everyday cafeteria behavior, according to Wilson.

“To watch them eat in the lunchroom is quite an adventure,” she said. “A lot of them were shocked to learn that you put the napkin in your lap.”

The lessons seemed carefully observed. Tre correctly passed a heavy plate of glazed ham to his right. Tess used the smaller fork for her salad. The classmates said “please,” and “thank you” and “your welcome” with every exchange of plates.

And when Tess stood up, the three boys at her table did the same.

It was, perhaps, the most popular lesson of Wilson’s manners’ curriculum: when a woman leaves and returns to the table, gentlemen should stand.

“Some women, they will take advantage,” Tre said, deadpan.

But the students also grasped a bigger lesson than how to make your classmates get up. Rising when your guests leave the table shows them respect and courtesy, said Bradford Hardaway, 11.

Angie Beutenmiller was glad to see that her 11-year-old daughter, Melissa, was taking in these concepts at school.

“I know a lot of adults that wonder, ‘Where do you go to learn manners to this extent?’” Beutenmiller said. “There’s no place to go, except to experience it when you’re older.”

Beutenmiller, who helped serve the Manners Dinner, said the meal gives students tools for life.

“I think it makes them feel better if they’re confident they have these skills,” Beutenmiller said. “It builds their self-esteem.”

More than manners, the dinner builds camaraderie and kindness among the students, Wilson said.

“They have to have a community they enjoy being around, before you can ask kids to put themselves out there and give an answer in math,” she said. “If they’re afraid they’re going to get laughed at, you’re going to have much less willingness for kids to help each other. It’s so important in your classrooms, when you’re spending that much time together everyday, to get along.”

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