Learning the ABCs of etiquette

Reprint of article from St. Helena Star / Napa Valley Register

June 28, 2007 12:00 am  •  By Carolyn Younger STAFF WRITER

Mary White’s conviction that “good manners will take you anywhere,” earlier this month took White, her husband, Peter, and 11 boys ages 4 to 12, to lunch at Silverado Brewing Company.

The “young gentlemen,” students of White’s who attend St. Helena Montessori School, were about to face the most grueling test of all — a three-course meal that required the proper use of a knife and fork and all the fine points learned during White’s four etiquette and leadership classes held in May and June at the Lodi Farm Center.

Age was no deterrent to good manners. Four-year-old George Cutting and 5-year-olds Nicholas Novak and Dante Miroglio were just as adept at introductions — a firm handshake, clear voice and direct gaze — as the 10- and 12-year-olds, Logan Showley, Sebastian Wignall, Kyle Shifflett, Aiden Wignall and Jonathan Wignall, and the in-betweeners, Connor Duncan, 8, and 6-year-olds Peter Johnston and Henry Cutting.

Some wore ties as a nod to the seriousness of the event, others wore freshly ironed button-downs, tropical shirts or polos. All appeared to have given their hair extra attention. No one appeared concerned that there were 13 at table.

Kids can learn

White, an educator with more than 20 years experience and admiration for the philosophy of Maria Montessori, founded White House Etiquette, she said, because “I was tired of people saying kids are rude. It’s just that they haven’t been taught.”

So she set about to teach them, starting with Class One, “A Gentleman Says the Right Thing.” In the class she discussed introductions, shaking hands, making eye contact and respecting friends and others, as well as the characteristics of a leader and the art of conversation and listening. The homework for each class was “practice, practice, practice” and on Mother’s Day the students put into action what they had learned.

In rapid succession came Class Two: “A Gentleman Looks His Best,” covering a range of topics from posture to the right look, bed making and the importance of clean rooms and closets; Class Three: “Being a Gentleman” which included practice being a great host or guest, showing consideration, being a good sport and mastering the telephone; and Class Four: “A Gentleman Goes to Dinner.”

This last was perhaps trickiest of all, covering as it did how to properly set a table, the use of each utensil, the use of the napkin, how to eat certain foods, American and continental styles of eating, and finally — what causes many parents to despair — table manners.

Everything the boys learned was put to the test June 13 when the group gathered at Silverado Brewing Company for Caesar salad, grilled Portobello mushrooms, sauteed chicken breasts and tall glasses of lemonade, each with a pesky slice of fresh lemon.

Before the meal

While the boys waited to be served, Peter White engaged a group in conversation and his wife gave a last-minute refresher course on napkin placement (“With your left hand place the napkin on your lap near your waist with the open edges facing your knees”), sipping beverages (“Look over your glass, not in it”), the proper handling of forks and knives (“Elbows in, the pointing finger goes on top of the knife so you can push down”), and passing the bread (“Your bread plates are on the left, pass your bread to the neighbor on the right”).

The boys also tried out their leans — a slight lean to the right when served, to the left when the plate is removed.

The young diners pinched off small pieces of bread to butter, kept their elbows off the table, remembered to say “Yes, thank you” and “No, thank you,” and checked out the line-up of forks to determine which would be used when the salads arrived.

They also tried out conversational gambits as they waited — sports and video games were favorite topics at one end of the table.

And before anyone began fidgeting, Mary White offered the reminder that exercising patience as they waited for the food was part of every dining experience.

Soon servers Colin Wilson and Tanner Briggs arrived and distributed the salads, Grace was said and the group settled into a comfortable rhythm of eating and conversing.

Help for all ages

White, an etiquette and protocol consultant, founded White House Etiquette to provide boys and girls with the social tools to feel comfortable in almost any situation. Her overall goal is to help all ages improve their personal quality of life through classes on manners and etiquette.

“Everyone appreciates sincere friendliness, good manners and respect,” she said, but noted that naturalness requires learning how to behave correctly. She has taken as her business motto Aristotle’s maxim, “We learn by doing.”

White, a Napa Valley native and longtime St. Helena resident, started a St. Helena Girls Leadership Club 10 years ago for ages 5 to 18 and also holds seminars for women on fashion, style, care of the home, parenting and, of course, etiquette. (Among her earliest students were her husband of 34 years, who joked that he was a lost cause, and her two children, now grown.)

Her first White House Etiquette classes for youngsters, however, were for boys, she said, because “they were feeling left out.”

And she had no qualms about including 5-year-olds in the mix. “I think we can expect that of them,” she said, “and the younger they are, the more comfortable they are in social situations.”

In addition to drawing from her own knowledge of social rituals of various cultures, she has trained at the Etiquette and Leadership Institute in Watkinsville, Ga. on how to be a children’s etiquette consultant, completed a course on Corporate Etiquette and International Protocol at the Protocol School of Washington in McLean, Va., and took a seminar offered by Dorothea Johnson Productions, Inc. in Washington, D.C. on tea and etiquette. Last week she was back in Georgia for an additional course on etiquette for children that includes ballroom dancing.

Her next etiquette classes for boys are July 9-13 and July 16-20 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the upper campus of Napa Valley College. Information is available by calling 963-5439.

Meanwhile, Wilson, the Brewing Company’s front of the house manager, was impressed with the luncheon group and the concept.

”They are well behaved but not to the point where they aren’t having any fun,” Wilson said, after serving the last of the salads.

“There is something about it that is kind of special, you can see it in their eyes,” he added. “They are off on the right foot, in a good direction.”