When we asked our 2nd grade teacher, “Can I go to the bathroom?” she always answered, “I don’t know. CAN you?” We crumpled in our seats as she mocked us. We were humiliated into asking properly…or else we learned to hold it all day.
My 3rd grade teacher presented a more positive approach to etiquette when we spent a number of sessions learning how to answer the phone. She brought in a telephone, circa 1976, Band-Aid beige with grey buttons. “Speak slowly and clearly and put a smile on your face before you answer,” she instructed. She would require us all to take our place next to her and practice answering the telephone, holding the heavy receiver up to our faces.
“Hello?” “Good afternoon.” “Fine, thank you. How are you?” “No, she’s not home right now.” “May I take a message?” “May I tell him who’s calling?” “Yes, this is she.”
She begged us to never forget to complete the call with a ‘Good-bye.’ “I especially appreciate it when the person I’ve contacted wishes me well,” she added and demonstrated by speaking into the receiver, channeling the spirit of Mary Poppins. “Do have a nice day. Good-bye,” she sang.
I remember all of us seated on the pilled, blue classroom rug waiting for our turn. We launched our arms in the air and pleaded with our bugged-out eyes, holding our breath, desperate to be the next one to have an imaginary conversation on the disconnected phone. We wanted desperately to prove how eloquent we could be.
It is unlikely that our children will benefit from the same tutelage in the public school system today. When it comes to manners, most of us are homeschoolers or unschoolers as the case may be judging from the little darlings I meet these days.
My mother is many things, and I dare not mention most of them until I have a good lawyer, but she was, in my youth, a skilled manners homeschooler.
“YOU are the master of your food. The food is not the master of YOU. Kindly sit up with your shoulders pushed back thusly and bring the fork up to your mouth.”
“Refrain from pointing at people as pointing is threatening and rude.”
“Continue making such grotesque expressions, and a cold wind will come along, and your face will freeze like that.”
“We do not yell from room to room!”
Admittedly, at my School of Manners, 2 children were, in fact, left behind. Our kids are beasts who eat with their elbows on the table and forget to cover their mouths when they sneeze and constantly interrupt others and belch with Simpsonian flare.
I try to set a good example, but I’m hardly Miss Manners. Yelling from room to room is my biggest manners infraction. I cringe while I'm doing the yelling, and I feel oh so disappointed with myself when the boys yell from room to room, too.
When Asher’s piano teacher came to the house, Asher was upstairs watching television. I demonstrated how very practiced I was with the yelling. “We just had an intercom system installed,” I told him making my way to the foot of the stairs. “It was absolutely free, and we didn’t have to drill holes in any of the walls. No parts, no labor. Crystal clear sound, too.” I pressed my forefinger into a random spot on the wall where my imaginary intercom speaker was and yelled loud enough so that my voice would ricochet against the wall and up the stairs,
“ASHER! TIME FOR YOUR LESSON!!”
I removed my finger from the spot on the wall as Asher yelled back,
“OK! I'M COMING!!”
Our piano teacher was well impressed.
I thought myself entertaining, but I was knew that this was many of many examples of our slide down that slippery slope of uncouthdom. It was clear that if I didn’t teach my kids manners, nobody would. It was time to commence with the manners instruction and invite decorum into our home.
Our homeschooling curriculum began with interrupting. I now charge Asher a 10¢ fee every time he interrupts which has been both impactful and lucrative. He is interrupting much less often.
Levi, the bigger and louder belcher of the two, now closes his mouth now that I’ve threatened to take away his pillow pet. He is strangely attached to his pillow pet.
As far as yelling from room to room, we now use the intercom feature on our digital, cordless phone system.
Deborah: Hello, how are you?
D: You mean, “Fine thank you, how are you?”
A: Uh, ok.
D: Your dinner is ready.
D: Ok, thank you? And, I’ll be down presently?
D: Just say you’ll be right down, thank you.
D: Go ahead then.
D: Say you’ll be right down, thank you.
A: Oh. I’ll be right down.
D: I’ll be right down, thank you.
A: Thank you.
D: Do have a nice day.
D: Just come downstairs now.
It’s a process – a much quieter process these days.
Asher got a hold of his little brother who was not as amused by the intercom.