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 at Francis Parker (not related) School. Mrs. Parker has been borrowing pupils from the student body, from both the Mission Hills and Linda Vista campuses, from second to eighth grade. Parents are so happy with her results that she’s decided to expand her offerings into the community at large.
The phrase “etiquette classes for children” invokes 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 Mrs. Parker wanted to put her own, wider spin on things. In 2012 she scraped together both the necessary gumption and the capital to attend the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vermont, run by fourth-generation descendants of Emily Post. Post founded the Institute in 1946, when she was 74. She died in 1960 at age 86, queen of an etiquette empire that 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; 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’s ethic with her own 21st-century take on etiquette, mixing 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. She encourages her students to find what works for them, keeping in mind that being kind rather than “cool” is the point. The students seem to be getting it. One parent, 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 now permanently intertwined, thanks to smartphones. “Dining,” another major component of the class, lasts six weeks, culminating in 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, where a prime corner of the restaurant was dedicated to the event. Twenty young ladies arrived and took their seats at a long table laid out with proper forks, knives, and spoons, and a printed menu. Mrs. Parker had to make 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 cues during the meal. They’ve obviously covered this point in class and are excited to demonstrate their knowledge.
“When I move, you move,” Mrs. Parker 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 Mrs. Parker’s brand: hip-hop mixed with manners in a way that would undoubtedly surprise Emily Post and Ludacris.
As the meal proceeds, the attendees look to Mrs. Parker at the start of each course. She’s nervous and 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. They sit up straight and keep 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 these out before or after the meal — to take pictures. And here is more 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; 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’ve heard their parents do likewise at mealtimes. Between courses, the tutees agree that they’d like their teacher to 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, at one of her many dinner parties, when a guest was offered the customary finger bowl filled with water and rose petals to clean her hands between courses, the guest 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: Mrs. Roosevelt didn’t want the blunder to cause her guest any chagrin. As Mrs. Parker tells it, Eleanor Roosevelt’s priority was to make her guests feel comfortable — a vivid illustration of the purpose of etiquette.
Mrs. Parker next tells a story about the origin of high heels at Louis XIV’s palace of Versailles, where the concept of “etiquette” is also said to have originated. Louis XIV, known for his extravagant court parties, became fed up with the behavior of his guests and 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. “Don’t feed the animals.” “Please stay on the path.” “Don’t pick the flowers.” Signs such as these became the basis for a code of conduct at court, giving social mores a name: “etiquette” is French for “label,” “ticket,” or “little sign.”