I love the kids at my school. I love how they’re innocent without being naïve. I love how they’re worldly-wise without being cynical. I love how they’re willing to take risks in front of their peers, be it expressing a thought or singing a solo or improvising on a glockenspiel. I love it that they’re mostly kind and accepting of each other, as far as their developmental levels allow them. I love their humor, their seriousness, their ease with adults, their care of plants and animals. I love all of these things and more.
But in the area of etiquette, manners, simple grace and courtesy, well, they could use a little work. Okay, a lot of work! The idea of waiting until two adults stop talking before interrupting, of letting a teacher get through three sentences of directions without any side-talk or comments on what the teacher is saying, of restraining themselves from touching or picking up any instrument in the music room within arm’s reach… well, like I said, a work in progress.
It’s interesting how much more I’m valuing the simple rituals of grace and courtesy as an older adult. As a younger one coming to age in the 60’s, we thought it was all superficial posturing and insincere pretense. A leftover from the bourgeoisie. We didn’t need these smokescreens of politeness, we would be direct and tell it like it is.
Turns out that the etymology of etiquette comes from an 18th century French word meaning of :list of ceremonial observances at court” and was related to the word “ticket” (“tiquette”) because little cards saying things like “keep of the grass” were written and strategically placed to remind people of proper behavior. Isn’t that interesting? So it turns out that it was a bourgeois practice coming from the oh-so-proper behavior we associate with European Court life. No wonder we hippies didn’t care to hold our pinky out just so while sipping tea!
But when I began to travel around the world, part of the game was learning the different customs of each place— the way in Indonesia you don’t sit pointing your feet at someone or step over instruments or start drinking tea or even noticing that your host has put it in front of you before they say “Mari.” It became a game of sorts and I began to realize that these little gestures of agreed-upon customs were the glue that kept things civil, connected and harmonious. Some are universal— some physical greetings (a bow, a hand-shake, a high-five, a hug), some form of thank you and you’re welcome and please—and some are specific— formal and informal pronouns, the above tea example and more.
And as any notion of a civil society becomes unglued with the shouting matches of hateful talk shows, the insulting tweets of a President, the loss of the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate language and the whole nightmare of cell phone usage, it’s not an easy atmosphere in which to teach school children grace and courtesy. But perhaps more important than ever to do so. It’s a new mission for me in my classes, to be explicit and to practice what was once implicit and understood and walk kids through the words and gestures like a script in a play, a script with a purpose of making our time together more pleasant and courteous. It may seem insincere when a child says “thank you” because the adult is making them, but it is important, I do believe, for them to practice it nonetheless.
But it also means that when a child says thank you without prompting, they really mean it. And when this happened to me three times on Friday after classes I had just taught—one from an 8th grader, one from a 4th grader and one from a 5-year old (who turned to me as we were walking down the hall and looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you for teaching me.”), it was a sign that I had done something right that day. I had taught things worthy of their attention and taught them in such a way that they meant something to the students. They had both fun and challenge and the surprise of a success beyond what they thought they could accomplish. While they absolutely deserve some credit (and I often thank kids for the sincere efforts I see them making), they also recognized that none of it would have happened without my efforts to give them something worthy of their best selves. I’ve yet to receive any “Teacher of the Year Awards” that the newspaper will report, but every time I receive these kind of thank yous—and there have been many this year—I feel affirmed in the most meaningful way.
If you read my last post, you’ll understand when I say, “Kerry M. Collier, are you reading this? Might you have been a little more civil than you were when you called me “trash” for suggesting that certain people are hiding behind their limited understanding of their 2nd Amendment rights to avoid facing the reality of children being shot in school? Was that called for? Oh, by the way, in polite society, people often say, “I’m sorry. That was unacceptable. Please accept my apology and let’s see if we can discuss the 2nd Amendment more calmly, with Grace and Courtesy.” And then I’ll be most happy to talk.