It was after an uncivilized routine emerged at our family dinner table that I realized I could use some help. Night after night, I was trying to enjoy conversation laced with talk of bodily functions, or even more hilarious, actual ones. I was forever reminding one son to bring the fork up to his mouth rather than to lower his face down onto the plate. Another I always asked to please not talk with his mouth full. Nightly, all three of them were asked to sit on their chair and pull it in to the table rather than standing, or half-kneeling on it, as if on their way out the back door. Call me old-fashioned or rigid or ridiculous and/or uptight. I’m sure I am those things. But I couldn’t stand it! I envisioned love interests of their distant futures saying, ‘He seemed nice, but the way he ate grossed me out,” or future co-workers always “too busy” to grab lunch. So that’s how my 11-year-old ended up wearing a suit and tie and attending a monthly etiquette class led by a white-haired man named Mr. Michael. Mr. Michael feels the same way I do about the rules of civility, and he covers much more than table manners. Under his breathy, microphoned instruction, my son and his best friend (an easy bribe to guarantee participation) have also learned the little things that ease interactions with strangers. Once a month in a local church hall, they greet Mr. Michael’s helper with a handshake and a ‘Good evening, Mrs. ____. My name is ___.” They sit at dining tables and rise to welcome the girls as they arrive. Later, they listen to Mr. Michael’s corny jokes as he directs them in the cha cha, waltz, and foxtrot. At break time, the boys escort the girls to their seats and head to the hors d’oeuvres table, where they fill paper plates with Doritos and cups with Sprite and present them to their dance partners. Only then do they help themselves. In closing, Mr. Michael addresses a pressing topic like looking people in the eye when you talk to them and cell-phone manners. I sit with the other parents, in awe of my pre-teen boy appearing so grown-up. Then I text photos of all of this to my son’s best friend’s mom, and we crack up.
Back at our dinner table, progress is super slow but, I feel, sure. And I won’t deny I felt some pride, and collapsed in laughter, when my son and his friend walked away with 1st and 2nd prize in the rumba. I also feel good that he is learning the ideal “form” for social interactions outside of family and friends. He’s storing it all somewhere in his head, and someday, this knowledge will let him swan through some potentially awkward situations–and maybe get him a second date.