When I signed my son up for dance and deportment lessons, I didn’t tell him.
For one thing, it was called Mr. Benjamin’s Cotillion, and I couldn’t shake the image of Mr. Benjamin Bunny, Peter Rabbit’s uncle. The only other dance-and-deportment teacher I could visualize, as the date of the first cotillion approached, was Prince Turveydrop, the desperately poor and harried dance instructor in Dickens’s novel Bleak House, who “sometimes played the fiddle, dancing; sometimes played the piano, standing; sometimes hummed the tune with what little breath he could spare, while he set a pupil right…and never rested for an instant.”
Prince Turveydrop, in other words, is not a youth icon.
Why, you may be asking yourself, did I enroll my son in something I couldn’t picture happening in this century with a cast of humans?
Well, that’s why, actually: the mere fact that Mr. Benjamin’s Cotillion had survived for 55 years in America’s beach belt. Who could teach gentility to Southern California 12-year-olds in 2009? How could it be done?
And yet it was done. The flyer said so. This seemed like a hopeful answer to the question I’ve asked with increasing alarm as our oldest child speeds toward adolescence in the age of texting and low-hung pants: Can this civilization be saved?
Plus, the letter said that if I came to watch the first night and didn’t like it, I could have my money back.
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I expected small numbers on that first September night — 20 or 30 helpless offspring wishing they were dead — but the lines outside the middle-school hall stretched down the sidewalk as if for the premiere of Star Wars XI. The girls wore, as directed in the flyer, dresses and skirts and ballet flats and kitten heels and the most heartbreakingly hopeful looks you ever saw. The boys wore the prescribed white or blue button-down shirts, khaki or navy pants, belts you could actually see because for maybe the first time in their lives someone had required them to tuck in their shirts, and expressions that ranged from acute physical discomfort to nervous bravado.
The boys stood in clumps, but the girls formed a wavering line, like tulips after a light snowfall. The boys and girls did not mix with one another. Girls entered through one door, boys through the other, and separate they remained.
At 7:30, a 6’5” man wearing a well-cut suit and tie strode to the center of the gym. He had a mustache and short steel-colored hair. It was instantly clear that he had not been, at any phase of his life, nicknamed Turveydrop. He looked like a retired pro football player moonlighting for the Secret Service.
“Good evening,” he said to the crowd, his voice amplified by a tiny tie-clip microphone, the kind used by referees in the NFL. “I’m Mr. Benjamin.”
He told the girls to extend and straighten the line on their side, and the boys to do the same on their boundary. Behind the boys, from chairs arranged on the stage, parents were thinking what he imagined they were thinking: I had to drag him here. I had to drag her here. Did I do him wrong? Did I do her wrong?
Two 20-year-old guys in suits, their black hair combed wetly back, their jaws set, stood at the edge of the room like extras in a Scorsese film. They were clearly the deportment roadies, though my 9-year-old son preferred to think of Pete Lococo and Dominic Dianna as Mr. Benjamin’s bodyguards. Pete and Dominic ran the iPod, counted boys and girls so that if the numbers didn’t come out even, Mr. Benjamin could designate the correct number of cut-ins, and proved that dressing up didn’t make you a wuss.
Mr. Benjamin surveyed the line of boys. “I see socks. I see belts. Good work, gentlemen.
“Keep your hands out of your pockets,” he told the boys. They took their hands out of their pockets.
He studied the girls. (If skirts are too short and dresses are too strappy, he has to have a discreet word. Nothing too “hoochie,” as he calls it, is allowed.) “Good work, ladies.”
He said that while the girls might have actually looked forward to dressing up this evening, “We all know why the boys are here. You’re here because your mothers made you come.”
Kids laughed, even the nauseated ones. He joked some more, and they laughed, and the parents laughed, relieved to discover that Mr. Benjamin was not only impressively threatening but funny. There would be jokes!
But jokes alone can’t dispel terror. “If you’re feeling nauseous, if you think you’re going to get sick, if you have a stomachache, if you’ve got sweaty palms, if you think you might pass out, you are a normal person,” he said. “You’re normal.”
No one passed out.
“I will refer to you here as ladies and gentlemen,” Mr. Benjamin continued. “And that’s what you’ll be.” The first rule of the night, and of all nights, would be this: “Keep your negative thoughts to yourself.”
There would be other etiquette topics, he said, and he’d bring them up a few at a time between dances — three dances a night would be typical — but this was the first and foremost, absolutely unbreakable one. No matter what you thought about someone’s hairstyle, dance skills, hand temperature, or body type, you were not, under any circumstances, to say a nasty critical word about it, not to your friend or acquaintance or, worst of all, to the warm-handed, sweating, terrified subject of your gaze. There would, furthermore, be no whispered asides that would make a boy or girl even think you were mocking him.
It felt, for a wonderful second or two, that the superhero you needed when you were 12, the Avenger of Lunchroom Humiliations, was now present and would, with his tallness and good posture and death-defying faith in the line between rudeness and civility, save every soul in the room from the social horror that is middle school.