On the first day of Mrs. Parker’s Charm School, the children line up in the hall outside the classroom. Before they enter the room, Mrs. Kymberli Parker grasps each one by the hand, looks him or her in the eye, and introduces herself with a hearty handshake. She asks each student to do the same. This is Charm School’s first lesson, and Mrs. Parker hopes it will last a lifetime. Class begins the same way every time it meets, which is currently at both campuses of the Francis Parker (not related) School, the Lower on Randolph Street in Mission Hills and the Middle/Upper on Linda Vista Road. Kymberli has been borrowing pupils from the student body, from second to eighth grade, and parents are so happy with the results that she has decided to expand her offerings to the community at large.
The phrase “etiquette classes for children” might invoke images of stiff-backed chairs and old-fashioned dances, but Mrs. Parker has had something else in mind for years. Not that she saw anything amiss with Mr. Benjamin’s Junior Cotillion, which has been teaching ballroom dancing and social niceties exclusively to sixth-graders for 56 years in Point Loma. But she wanted to put her own spin on things and also include a wider range. In 2012 she finally scraped together the gumption (and investment capital) to attend the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vermont, which is run by fourth-generation descendants of Ms. Manners herself. Emily Post founded the Institute in 1946, when she was 74. She died in 1960 at age 86, queen of an etiquette empire that also included a popular book, radio appearances, and a syndicated newspaper column that appeared daily in more than 200 publications. Her 1922 book, Etiquette—the Blue Book of Social Usage, became an immediate bestseller, and her descendants continue to publish updated versions.
Post operated on the principle that there was a right way to do everything: the way that pleases the greatest number of people and offends the least. Today the Emily Post Institute describes its philosophy as one that “emphasizes consideration, respect, and honesty, as well as the particular manners.”
Parker blends Emily Post ethic with her own 21st-century take on etiquette, finding ways to mix manners, fine dining, and pop lyrics. “Sporting a Prada handbag and my workout gear–a little bit hip-hop and a little bit Coco Chanel—that’s my brand,” she giggles, adding that she encourages her students to find what works for them, while keeping in mind that being kind, not being cool, is the point. And the students seem to be getting it. One of the parents, an executive at San Diego power utility Sempra Energy, commented to Mrs. Parker on the improvement in his child’s manners at the dinner table and beyond. And one day, a second-grader piped up in class to say “thank you for teaching me how to be civil.”
After “introductions,” the course of study for children turns to “table talk” and “technology tips”—two topics that are now permanently intertwined thanks to smart phones. Dining is also a major component of the class, which lasts six weeks and culminates with a five-course “Demonstration Dinner” for students to showcase the skills they’ve acquired under Mrs. Parker’s tutelage. The first such dinner, in winter 2012, was catered at Francis Parker Lower School cafeteria. The second, in March 2013, got a major upgrade—to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse on Harbor Drive. A prime corner of the restaurant was dedicated to the event, where 20 young ladies arrived and took their seats at a long table laid out with all the proper forks and spoons, and a printed menu. Mrs. Parker had to put in a special request for extra silverware—even Ruth’s Chris doesn’t normally put out a five-course place setting.
At dinner, Mrs. Parker begins with a reminder to her students that guests should look to the hostess for all cues during the meal. They’ve obviously covered this point in class, and are excited to demonstrate their knowledge.
“When I move you move,” she sings out, à la hip-hop artist Ludacris in the 2003 hit “Stand Up.” The girls chant back in unison without missing a beat:
“Just like that!” There’s that Mrs. Parker brand: mixing hip-hop with manners in a way that would undoubtedly surprise Emily Post, not to mention Ludacris.
As the meal proceeds, the attendees look to Mrs. Parker at the start of each course. She’s so nervous she isn’t eating, and there’s some confusion as she assures her guests that it’s okay to start without her. She beams as the girls chat amiably while sitting up straight and keeping their elbows (and smartphones) off the table. (By the way, Mrs. P. regrets to inform us, there’s no place setting for cell phones. Take them out before or after the meal—to take pictures. And this is news: elbows are okay on the table, as long as there’s no food at one’s place.)
The waiter asks each diner for steak temperature preference, and each answers with poise, polish, and a “please.” When the entrée arrives, the girls daintily cut their steaks, as Mrs. Parker has instructed them, with equal weight applied to fork and knife. They comment politely to each other on the quality of the meat, as if they’d heard their parents do likewise at mealtimes. Between courses, the tutees agree that they would like to hear their teacher tell the Eleanor Roosevelt story.
Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and first lady from 1933 to 1945, was well known as a gracious hostess. As the story beloved by Mrs. Parker’s students goes, rumor has it that, at one of her many dinner paries, when one of Mrs. Roosevelt’s guests was offered the customary finger bowl filled with water and rose petals to clean her hands between courses, she mistook it for soup, picked up a spoon, and sipped its contents. Upon noticing the error, Mrs. Roosevelt immediately picked up her finger bowl and followed suit. Eleanor didn’t want the blunder to cause her guest any chagrin, so she took it upon herself to rectify the situation. As Mrs. Parker tells it, Eleanor Roosevelt’s priority was to make her guests feel comfortable—an illustration of the purpose of etiquette.
After the story about Mrs. Roosevelt, Mrs. Parker tells the story about the origin of high heels at Louis XIV’s Versailles, where the concept of “etiquette” is also said to have originated. When Louis XIV, known for his extravagant courtly parties, became fed up with the behavior of his guests at his sprawling palace, he commissioned his attendants to do something about it. The solution was to put up little signs throughout the grounds to guide visitors on how to behave with proper decorum. Signs like “Don’t feed the animals,” “Please stay on the path,” and “Don’t pick the flowers” became the basis for a code of conduct at court that gave social mores a name: “etiquette” is French for label, ticket, or little sign.
Finally, dessert arrives, and Mrs. Parker dares take a bite. It’s strawberry cheesecake and chocolate-covered almonds. Parents dining at another table, observing their seven-year-old from afar and enjoying a night out, send over a splash of wine for the hostess. The meal concludes, and out come the smart phones. A second-grader seated across from me, who has been squirrelly but sweet during the two-hour experience, takes out an iPad and snaps some photos. Each student approaches Mrs. Parker to say thank you and bid goodbye. As parents ascend the curved staircase to the Ruth’s Chris dining room to pick up their children, other customers waiting for tables can’t help but look on. It’s quite a charming sight: a group of twenty children and adolescents behaving graciously and politely in a public place. The manager of Ruth’s Chris warmly assured Mrs. Parker that he would be delighted to host more dinners like it in the future. More are planned.
And it’s not only parents interested in improving their children’s manners who have engaged the services of Mrs. Parker—just a few days after she posted the preliminary draft of her web site, an administrator from the University to Qualcomm program (also known as U2Q) contacted her to help with refining the fine dining skills of the employees enrolled. University to Qualcomm helps full-time employees who have graduated from a degree program three or fewer years ago with the transition to “real life.” When Mrs. Parker talked with a U2Q board member for the first time, he expressed the dire need for a lesson in etiquette.
“Kymberli,” he said in all seriousness, “these are college students who have been eating pizza out of the box for four years. If they could, they would eat the box!”
Fresh from her second round of training, Mrs. Parker to the rescue! In Vermont, not far from where I went to graduate school, Kymberli had just completed a series of business etiquette workshops at the Emily Post Institute. Right alongside her, at the Burlington Country Club, were customer care representatives from Chanel and executives flown in from Japan and Geneva, all getting taught their lessons and given their laurels by Peter Post, one of Emily Post’s four great-grandchildren.
At Qualcomm, in front of a conference room of twenty-somethings in jeans and flip-flops, Mrs. Parker shared some of what she had learned at the Institute, and what she has known intuitively her whole adult life: the importance of handshakes.
“I’m a two-pump kind of girl,” she shared, eliciting some smiles and some curious looks from the crowd, many of whose first language was not English.
“When I met President Obama,” she went on, not explaining to the audience that she had met him at a fundraiser several years ago, “I did two pumps and began to release my hand. Then he put his hand over mine and said how glad he was that I could make it to the event.” She grabbed the hand of a volunteer and illustrated her point, showing how to make the handshake more personal. A few murmurs rippled through the room.
“True story,” she confirmed, elaborating no further.
Though she calls it “school,” Mrs. Parker is not taking a summer break from charm. On the schedule: a live chat with the Los Angeles Times and possible desk-side chat appearances with a prominent etiquette luminary, still under wraps. The San Diego County Bar Association also invited Mrs. Parker to address young attorneys during their lunch-and-learn at the U.S Grant Hotel downtown. She showed up with her notes, left them at the podium, and charmed the crowd with her off-the-cuff style. The hotel’s wait staff even stopped to listen in and ask questions when they heard her talking about why the blade of the knife always faces in at the place setting, and why pouring the wine with the hand under the bottle, to show the label in the manner accepted by the industry today, is an offense to etiquette.
As custom goes, the blade of the knife is pointed inward as a sign that diners are not aggressive towards each other and have their knives ready only to slice food, not fellow guests, at table. And according to a story Kymberli heard, the correct method for pouring wine comes from an equally morbid notion: in the days of yore, those who might wish their dining companions ill would wear a ring with a tiny compartment for poison, which they would sprinkle in the wine clandestinely while pouring with a hand under the bottle. To appease guests, hosts and help were supposed to pour with hands showing on top of the bottle. The clinking of glasses also comes from this—clink hard enough, and some drops of possibly toxic libation might splash out of one’s glass into another’s, spreading the poison and foiling the plotter’s efforts.
After her gig with the Bar Association, and fielding questions from the attorneys about how to deal with out-of-control-texting clients (don’t give out a cell number to clients, or, if the deed has already been done, let them know calls will be answered only during normal business hours), Mrs. Parker received thank-you notes from three lawyers who had been at the luncheon. For her, this is the ultimate compliment: a handwritten piece of evidence that proves someone was listening, and that manners matter. Emily Post would be delighted.