I wouldn’t want you to think etiquette has no place in my home. We are not heathens.
When I belch triumphantly at the dinner table and blame it on my son, he always, always, says, “Excuse me.”
Still, we are not the very paragons of poise. And thus I was thunderstruck last fall when my 8-year-old asked if he could join his school chums at cotillion.
I didn’t know what cotillion was, and all efforts to find out only further befuddled me, defined as it is by inscrutable terms like “debutantes,” “polite society,” “social graces,” and something called “niceties.”
Turns out cotillion is an old-school manners camp that obliges children — who have only recently mastered the art of shoe-tying — to dress up like fusty little mortgage lenders and practice chivalry, obsolete dance steps, and the fine art of balancing a cookie, party napkin, and glass of punch on one’s wiggly, wobbly lap.
None of which should be remotely appealing to a third-grade boy. But my son wanted to wear a suit so he could look like James Bond. He was curious about how boys are expected to interact with girls once they’re done shooting spitballs at them. And, ultimately, my crafty little hooligan convinced me to enroll him in the expensive, elitist, and antiquated class by appealing to my knee-jerk maternal fantasies.
“Mom, if I’m ever invited to the White House for dinner, I’ll feel so uncomfortable,” he pleaded, ” unless I’ve been to cotillion.”
So we shelled out for the obligatory traditional dark suit, thin-soled dark leather oxfords, and gentleman’s standard tie. (The dress code asks even parents to sport “Country Club attire at minimum,” typed just like that, with initial caps, as if country clubs were a geographical entity unto themselves.)
The grown-up hostesses wear Grace Kelly cocktail dresses with pearl chokers, their hair curled into ringlets. One is a former beauty queen. The hosts grin like Ken dolls and chuckle far more than is called for. In sing-songy, Stepfordy voices, they beseech their 8- to 11-year-old charges to line up, boy-girl-boy-girl, and do the cha-cha-chá.
“Hands out of your pockets, gentlemen!” they caution. “Make sure and smile, because even if you’re nervous on the inside, no one else needs to know…”
The boys learn to approach girls — dressed in “modest” frocks and short white gloves — and ask them to dance. They must learn their partners’ full names, and introduce them to neighboring couples on the dance floor. They practice applauding and thanking their hosts for a lovely party. They learn to “cut in” on another couple’s dance, to lead their partner to a metal folding chair, and to sit down on her left without ever — I kid you not — showing her their backside. (It’s worth mentioning that the National League of Junior Cotillions lists Donald Rumsfeld among its Best Mannered People.)
Not surprisingly, my Bond wannabe doesn’t love cotillion. One day, I watched him take his dance partner’s empty cup and napkin to the trash and return to her side, clumsily retrieving her gloves from his suit pocket while she consulted with a nearby girlfriend as to whether she had chocolate on her face. He rolled his eyes. Afterward, he told me the experience had been off-puttingly “fancy prancy” and even, I’m sorry to say, “fruitsy-tootsy.”
Which is fine with me, since I’ve never enjoyed nor trusted men whose MO is the same behavioral code their grandfathers used to get their grandmothers into the sack.
I give props to cotillion, though, for teaching my son — perhaps unintentionally — that there are people in life who will judge him solely on his manners.
Mostly I’m grateful that if he does wind up dining at the White House with a high-bred debutante, and feels the need to belch, he’ll have the good sense to blame it on her.