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Class Acts: etiquette for the preschool set


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Paula Person remembers listening to the news in the late 60s and hearing a shocker. "Out in California there was a young person who answered back to a principal of a school," she says. "I was appalled by that. When I taught school, principals were gods and children obeyed."

Throughout the cultural upheaval of the last few decades, Person has maintained her belief in the importance of good manners. In 1979 she created the Children's Spoon, a program designed to teach children everything from how to sit straight and write a formal RSVP to the proper way to "design," rather than set, a table at home. Business has been brisk ever since she taught her first class at the Winnetka Community House. Fathers sent overseas on business would return enlightened. "They said they were just appalled when they'd be in Europe and the kids were so polite and nice and sat at the dinner table like adults. So they came home and enrolled their kids."

The four-part program, which Person holds at tony haunts such as the Pump Room and the Drake Hotel, has a strict dress code (skirts for girls--"no skorts or culottes"--and shirts with collars for boys) and includes homework. She uses songs to help her four- and five-year-old students remember such things as how to spread a napkin (for dinner it goes halfway across the lap, and for luncheon it should be completely unfurled). The course culminates with a graduation ceremony in which the children host a mini tea party for their parents.

As you might expect, Person is something of a blue blood. "Anybody who would teach this subject matter would have to have a social background." She grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, and was educated at Notre Dame Academy and Marymount College. In 1957 she married a second-generation West Point graduate and inherited a polo-playing father-in-law who was also a general. Person was given a book of social protocol called The Army Wife and honed her skills at officers' events. "It was very social and very proper--there were calling cards," she says. "But by the time President Kennedy was assassinated, the army was starting to get modernized, and a lot of the old and nice things were disappearing."

Person says the pendulum is now swinging back. "I get calls from people who are so frightened because their boss has asked them to host a dinner or reception and they have no idea of what to do. I tell people this is as important as math, because they'll be using it for the rest of their lives."

Person's next four-week session starts this Sunday at the Chicago Marriott, 540 N. Michigan. The program is $95 per child; call 847-251-3382 to register.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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