MAPLEWOOD, NJ - The tables were properly set, the water poured. The waitstaff had its instructions: serve from the right, clear from the left; don’t hover. The diners were expected at any moment. Then suddenly they came, a little shorter than usual, a tad more boisterous. The fancy “restaurant,” after all, was the Seth Boyden stage, the honored guests were fifth graders, and the waitstaff a group of eager but relatively untrained parents.
But, over the next hour, none of that mattered, as seated boy-girl-boy-girl, the diners got all the fine points of the etiquette of dining: how to get your napkin to your lap; what to do with it when you get up to go to the bathroom; how to eat your soup — sip, not slurp, and spooned away, not toward. They learned how to hold their fork and knife and cut and eat Continental style, and how to place their silverware when finished. They were given a few tips on conversation and other behavior: Good manners means never telling someone else what to do; lead by example, not lecture. Talk to your nieghbors on both sides. Men, help the ladies pull their chairs out.
The etiquette lunch was conceived as a companion to Dancing Classrooms, NJPAC’s artist-in-residence program that brings professional dance instructors to school for 10 weeks to teach the kids all about the ins and outs of ballrooom dancing. This year, the third year the Seth Boyden has participated in the program, parents decided to give the kids something extra: a formal dinner on the big night they performed the dances they’d learned.
The etiquette lunch in early January was the lead-up to the big dinner and dance a week later. And so, the next week, when the students arrived in their best clothes to a gym outifitted in whtie lights and crepe paper streamers, linen tablecloths and place settings with a small and a big fork, a whole army of parents at the ready, they knew exactly what to do.
This time, Principal Mark Quiles was the host and the dancing instructors the honored guests. But all the kids ate their fruit course with a fork and properly cut the maple-mustard chicken that followed. Then, dessert done, they trooped upstairs with the help of their devoted teachers and lined up, ready to show their parents the way they could waltz, tango polka and swing with just about anybody.
As Mr. Quiles said that evening, it all was a lesson in social equity, a chance for the kids to feel they could be in the same room, and at the same dinner table, with anybody.
As etiquette instructor Maria Joyce, of The Protocol School of New Jersey put it, they had to learn to act like they expected to be invited to the White House one day: because, she said, she fully expected that a few of them would be.