Do you remember this famous lyric, sung to the tune of Dvorak’s Humoresque #7? (You can check it out in the 36 second YouTube video uploaded by “narutoshippuudenfani”at the end of this post.)
Mabel, Mabel, sweet and able, keep your elbows off the table, go on out and get yourself a man . . .
In 1964 then-President Lyndon Johnson announced his War on Poverty in his state of the union address. Then the Office of Economic Opportunity introduced an 8-week program they called Project Head Start in the summer of 1965 as the solution to the cycle of poverty. I’m not sure how “need” was determined because my young niece, whose family lived frugally but not in poverty, was placed in the program at the school where she would eventually enter first grade. The program was controversial, but as far as I can tell is still ongoing.
The first time I saw her after that experience I asked her what she learned in Head Start. “Oh, they just teached us our minners,” she said in her wonderful southern drawl, and then went on to ask we could stop for a Coca-Cola. I strongly suspect that in her mind–due to her limited life experiences at the time–minners had more to do with tiny fishes in the creek (minnows) than with the lack of social graces (i.e. manners) in her life.
Recently I was watching a television show with a feature on the young people entering today’s business world. Some of those same college graduates who now routinely wear blue jeans and sandals to work and change jobs if the boss speaks harshly–or fails to recognize how special they are–are now busy attending etiquette schools to learn manners. Seems they need to learn how to eat at formal affairs that require more than fingers or a plastic fork.
Not long after that I read a letter written to a syndicated “advice columnist” in our local newspaper that asked if it was still considered bad manners to put your elbows on the table when dining out in restaurants. The letter writer said she had been taught all her life not to even touch the table with her elbows, yet she sees people doing it all the time, even in the posher eating establishments. She wondered if the rules had changed or if manners even mattered anymore.
Okay, I’ll admit that when I’ve been out to dinner with friends–even in the posher places–I’ve sometimes rested my elbows–both of them–on the table during pre-dinner conversation. I’m not sure why. I think I use them to prop my chin as that seems to be a familiar habit of mine. But as soon as the food begins to arrive, I remove them immediately. To me it’s a matter of common sense. When the table is full of food and drinks, you don’t need to complicate things or risk knocking something into your lap by placing your elbows on a crowded table. I suspect the rule was made in the first place to accomplish just this sort of common sense.
Now, if my math is right, some of the young twenty-somethings entering the workplace today are the kids of the kids who may have been in the initial Head Start programs. In spite of President Johnson’s war on poverty and the head start program, those parents have failed to teach their kids “minners“. We’ve all become so much more casual in our attitudes that apparently few of us would know how to act or which fork to use in the event we were invited to the White House. Whether we live in poverty or higher on the economic pole.
So what do you think? Does Head Start accomplish the task it sets for itself? Do we need to re-think the part of the Head Start program teaching manners and extend it to kids of all ages and income levels so it won’t be necessary to take remedial manners training? Or do you think Mabel even needs to worry about keeping her elbows off the table? Also, and maybe just as important to ask ourselves, why in the world are there people who still think Mabel needs to go out and get herself a man?