They were just a bunch of kids, none older than 9, but they were about to be confronted with one of the most excruciatingly perplexing problems of modern society.
There it sat, on gleaming china, arching up with huge, tufty leaves, perhaps the greatest threat to table-side aplomb in the entire salad family. Daring each kid to spear it in one gigantic, drippy glob and ram it mouthward. With tomato wedges.
But these kids were ready. Armed with newly acquired gentility and silver forks, they soon reduced the fearsome foliage to neat, bite-size morsels and finished them off with appropriate tidiness and reserve.
It was the final social triumph of that day's "White Gloves and Party Manners" class, a five-week Saturday morning course designed to teach preteen-age children to be--as the brochure says--"perfectly polite and properly poised."
Taught at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach, the class is the Orange County franchise--with modifications--of a national course first developed by Marjabelle Stewart, a Washington hostess and an author and lecturer on etiquette. For $125, children learn which fork to use for salad, that blowing one's nose at the table (discreetly) is acceptable, how to correctly file one's nails, proper form for answering the telephone or the door, how to curtsy, and, each week, how to tackle with grace and style yet another difficult-to-manage food.
An Orange County version of the course is the brainchild of Irvine publisher Laurel Green and her husband, Alan, an advertising account executive. After searching in vain for an etiquette class for their four children, the couple learned that franchises of Stewart's "White Gloves and Party Manners" class were available. So, along with Joel Swenson, a producer of corporate multimedia productions who lives in Corona del Mar, they bought one.
Although some local modeling and personal development schools offer etiquette as part of other curricula, few take children as young as the "Party Manners" class.
"There's a reawakening a bout manners and etiquette right now," Swenson said. "From the Reagan White House on down, people have become concerned with what proper behavior is."
But the Greens and Swenson realized that a highly structured class concerned with teaching children many things that seem foreign to them would go over like a fly in the vichyssoise. What was needed, Alan Green said, was a slightly more freewheeling approach.
"Joel and I really weren't satisfied with the materials that were sent to us," Green said, "so we rewrote the course. The materials Marjabelle Stewart was using were written back in the '60s, and what was fashionable then is not necessarily fashionable now. So the puppets, the dressing up, the contests--those were all our ideas."
The course modifications have actually turned sections of the classes into bits of impromptu theater. Green and Swenson, impeccably dressed in suits and ties during most of the class, periodically retire to an adjacent room and emerge as characters that would do credit to a vaudeville show.
How, principal course instructor Jody Clark asked her 11-member class of 5- to 9-year-olds, does one answer the door when the person knocking is: a) the plumber b) your sister's boyfriend c) your playmate Jimmy or d) Grandma? On cue, a knock sounds at the door, and, when different children answer it, there is either Green or Swenson, dressed in garish ensembles that include a plumber's plunger, oversize tennis shoes, a large heart-shaped lollipop, a red umbrella, a gray wig and a flapping print dress.
The rest of the class is similarly lighthearted though less flamboyant. The girls dress in party dresses and white gloves, the boys in coats and ties. Clark refers to them as "my young ladies and my gentlemen."
The session begins with each girl dropping a short curtsy to the boy next to her, and the boy in turn seating the girl around a long conference-style table. Teams are chosen for a "College Bowl"-type game in which Clark poses hypothetical questions. The team names, chosen by the children, are the Scorpions and the Sharks. Occasionally, props such as telephones are used for practice. There are weekly awards for good posture and good grooming.
It is an atmosphere that encourages occasional impromptu pronouncements from the students.
"If you don't like something, you never say, 'Ooo, yuck.' You set it to the side," said Danielle Valenti, 7, as the lettuce was being wheeled in on a trolley.
As a small, slightly less difficult second course--a fruit plate containing slices of melon, pineapple and several blueberries--was wheeled in, one blond, blue-eyed participant named Kenneth Lipinski, 7, of Santa Ana felt that the time was right to comment on the proper way to eat the berries. "Be careful you don't squeeze their guts out," he said. Not missing a beat, Clark smiled and thanked him.
Admired Air of Sophistication