Column: Ladies and gentlemen

Sixth-grade teacher Andrew Jurek and student Charlie Johnson put on ties in front of a mirror. Sixth-graders at Stonebridge Elementary have been learning “Manners 101.” (Submitted photo)
Marny Stebbins (Photo courtesy of Shelly Kryzer Photography)

A year ago, my 11-year-old son would have gone to school in a Glad bag and knee-high black socks without complaint. Like a hiker lost in the woods and forced to wear his supplies for protection, if a garbage bag was on the top of the laundry pile, he would have a crunchy (yet dry) walk to the bus stop. And as always, socks are highly optional.

For as long as I can remember, my son has chosen to wear athletic pants or, God forgive me, pajama pants (not all that different than a shaped Glad bag) because zippers are cumbersome and you can only have your barn door open so many times in sixth grade without earning a tasteless nickname. The entire month of December, Christmas pajama pants were working overtime— doubling as blanket by the Christmas tree and forgiving sports gear for necessary dodgeball maneuvers.

Fast forward one year: We just had a heated argument over the contrast between a navy blue shirt and a brown leather belt. He was unsatisfied with the combination and deemed the choice, “uncouth.” And then my jaw hit the floor with the weight of a silver tea set.

It’s happening. Glory be!

I can’t tell you how much I would love to take credit for this change. Like a hot chocolate biscuit dipped in English tea, I would savor this parenting accomplishment with a slow, eyes-closed, nod of appreciation. All the Easter mornings I have stuck my half-dressed body under his bed searching for a missing black sock or brown shoe, only to come out with a fresh run in my tummy-controlled nylons, would be redeemed by his newfound self-awareness.

But, of course, the credit is not mine. Somewhere between teaching multiplication of exponents and outlining personal narratives, my son’s teachers carved out time to teach, Manners 101. This included:

1. How to write a thank you note

2. Table manners

3. Phone etiquette

4. Formal attire

5. How to have a conversation with an actual, breathing, person without the aid of a media device or fidget spinner in one’s hand.

I can only imagine the collective sigh of disappointment that stretched across the sixth-grade classroom in response to this syllabus, as it would be considered a list of punishments at home. Write a thank you note that is more than seven words? Put away the phone at the dinner table? Pants with zippers? Manners 101 sounded aggressively optimistic to me.

But, as six-th graders often do, they rose to the challenge.

Last Thursday, I found a gaggle of boys standing in front of the school bathroom mirror carefully following directions on how to tie a tie. There was more concentration happening in that tiled enclave than the entire floor of NASA mission control. Beads of sweat, people.

There are moments, as a parent, when you find yourself an accidental witness to your child growing up. These moments are not found at the concerts, recitals, championship games, and even graduations we look forward to, because as we take those seats, we are earmarking an event, writing down a date in a baby book, expecting accomplishment. In short, we are prepared for our hearts to swell.

But you can’t prepare yourself for the moment your son wraps his arm around his little sister or opens the door for his grandma on Easter Sunday. You can’t prepare for the moment he walks down the staircase in his first successfully knotted tie. With matching black socks.

These moments, so entwined in our everyday shuffle, are hiding in the peripheral vision of parenting — unexpected and sneaky. And usually filled with great importance (like the smuggled can of whip cream and fistfuls of water balloons). This is where the good stuff is happening. The important stuff. The growing up. This is where we can truly witness them turning into … themselves.

I had the pleasure of joining the sixth-grade Stonebridge Elementary class at the Lowell Inn for a celebratory luncheon, and it did not disappoint. Gentlemen held doors open and pulled out chairs for ladies. Cloth napkins were placed on laps and fork prongs were counted. Wait staff were thanked for water refills. Chicken tenders and French fries were cut into bite-size pieces.

And as I sat amongst my table of such well-mannered students, full of witty and colorful conversation, it was easy to picture them just a little bit older, in high school, in college, as adults. Out of the corner of my eye, I could picture them telling their own kids “I learned to tie a tie in sixth grade in Manners 101 …” In the blink of an eye.

I’m so grateful for teachers who value the growth of the whole child — because models of civility are becoming harder and harder to find in our world. After all, who opens car doors for their date anymore? Who sends letters instead of emails? Who still uses forks?

Just for fun, I asked the kids, “Does your dad pull out your chair for your mom?”

“No!!” was the unanimous answer.

“But he does hold her hand,” a young lady whispers.

Out of the corner of her eye, she, too, is catching the important stuff.

A special thanks to our sixth-grade teachers at Stonebridge Elementary — Mr. Andrew Jurek and Ms. Andrea Vizenor — for underlining the importance of manners and civility. I expect, your model of kindness will last a lifetime.

Marny Stebbins lives in Stillwater with her husband and four children. She is a staunch believer in early bedtimes, caffeine enhancement and humor therapy.