Some years ago when my kids were heading into the junior-high years at Logos School, we started thinking what we could do in lieu of “the prom” that is so characteristic of high schools. Those years (the poetic stage) are when students start caring about how they present themselves, and we wanted to work with the grain, not against it. And because we were deliberately trying to establish an alternative to the dating culture, we started scratching our heads about what we could do that wasn’t a prom, wasn’t dorky, and was an event that our kids would be excited about.
About that time a friend told me about a school that had a program they called Protocol for their high-school students. They taught a week or so of intensive manners and then planned an event for the students where they would have an opportunity to apply what they had learned. This sounded like the perfect thing for us to imitate at Logos, so we began to figure out how we could do something similar.
I was teaching junior-high English and high-school literature at the time, and the last thing I wanted to do was also become the manners teacher. I figured it was bad enough that everyone was jumpy about their grammar around me, and if I was teaching manners too, well, I just wouldn’t have any friends at all. Besides that, I wanted someone with real polish. A friend suggested the perfect instructor for me: a gray-haired firecracker of a lady who had been in plenty of challenging social circles and could captivate high-school students with her great sense of humor and delightful stories. She readily agreed to the idea, and it was clear from the start she was going to be a hit with the kids. She could get away with saying just about anything to them, girls and guys alike, and they would take it all from her without a whimper.
We started off with a day on table manners, and she brought in all the hardware to demonstrate which fork goes where and what it’s used for. She told them where to put the napkin and how to get in and out of their chairs, doors, and coats. She had the young men practice seating the ladies and helping them into their coats. We had a day on conversation, working a room, making introductions, and how to be a good guest. And she always spent one day speaking to the guys and girls separately on good grooming, poise, and polish. The kids really loved it.
Then we went out on the town. The first few years we experimented with catered dinners in homes and a local b&b. We had a social hour with hors d’oeuvres where the students met and mingled with local dignitaries. I remember one of those first dinners when my dear protocol instructor showed up at dinner (just to make an appearance to give the young men a chance to stand up and greet her, etc.) but first she needed me to zip up the sequined gown she had borrowed!
As the high school grew, I decided to break the Protocol event into two: one for the freshmen/sophomores that would be local, and another for the upperclassmen where we could travel an hour or two to a bigger city with more entertainment and restaurant options.
The girls always wore formals for high protocol (in fact, they usually started shopping for their dresses in the summer). I remember the year that the boys all decided to rent tuxes for the event. We took them to one of the classiest restaurants in the area, and they wowed everyone. Even at the opera house, they turned heads. Not your typical teenagers out on the town.
I saw these students graduate, and then when I ran into them at social events, I could see that the protocol training really paid off. Once at a rehearsal dinner, I was sitting next to a law student who was struggling with which fork to use for what. One of the groomsmen across the table had been to a protocol event at the same restaurant, years before. He was very comfortable with the whole evening, knew what was expected, and made everyone else feel at ease as well. This was the protocol pay off.
Sometimes we had more girls than guys, so we just assigned one escort to two young ladies. No one seemed to mind because it was not a dating set-up, it was a group going out to dinner and then to a concert or a play together.
Manners are easy to teach because there are so many tools out there, lots of books and resources. When my original Protocol teacher had to retire, I found two more very capable women to take over. One of them, Sandra Boswell, has put it all into a very helpful book to help parents or teachers put together a similar event. It’s called Protocol Matters and is published by Canon Press. I can’t recommend the teaching of manners strongly enough. We all need it, from the kids on up. And if it is done well, it will be a big blessing to everyone.