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Polite Company : San Diego's Junior Assembly Teaches 12-Year-Olds How to Not Act Their Age

December 21, 1986|BILL FURLOW | Bill Furlow is an editor in The Times' San Diego Edition

"Outside of this room, you can be a boy, you can be a girl, you can be a dude, you can be a chick--whatever. Inside this room, you're a lady or a gentleman. Not only are you called ladies and gentlemen, you have to act like ladies and gentlemen."

On one side of the room in the Point Loma women's club building, 48 girls stand looking across at a similar row of boys, but trying to avoid eye contact. Peter Gregg Benjamin is opening the second of 15 sessions of Junior Assembly, a San Diego tradition begun in 1954 by his father, Donald A. Benjamin.

The ostensible purpose of Junior Assembly is for sixth-graders to learn ballroom dancing. But Benjamin admits that the real reason parents pay him $125 per child is to teach manners and self-confidence.

As he talks, Benjamin--tall, tan and 28--paces the floor. "Now, there are a number of things that ladies and gentlemen do do and do not do. There were five or six things I talked about last time. Does anybody remember?"

"Don't stand with your hands in your pockets," a young gentlemen offers.

"As I said, if I see you standing around with your hands in your pockets, I think that you're very, very nervous, think you're really, really cool, or think you have to go to the bathroom.

"What are some other things that a lady or a gentleman does or does not do? Sir?"

"Try not to hurt any other person's feelings," another boy says.

By the time Benjamin has proceeded through his list, the class has been reminded that whispering is dangerous because it can hurt someone's feelings; that ladies and gentlemen don't comb their hair in public; that one should always dress appropriately for the occasion, and that, second only to being aware of other people's feelings, ladies and gentlemen should keep their thoughts about others to themselves.

The man promulgating these rules is not so stuffy or affected elsewhere. Away from Junior Assembly, Benjamin is polite but makes no show of manners. During the day, he makes custom surfboards. He believes that the lessons he teaches are as relevant today as they ever were. "Being a lady or a gentleman," he says, "has nothing to do with the 1700s, the 1800s or the 20th Century."

To the apparently heightened anxiety of some of the students, the lesson shifts from etiquette to dancing.

"You might be dancing with someone and thinking to yourself, 'My gosh, how did I get stuck with this one?' They might be thinking the exact same thing about you. You're not going to have to marry this person. It's three or four minutes out of your life. It's not going to kill you. Now, when I say, 'Gentlemen, get a partner,' you don't kinda go, 'Hmm, let's check it out. What does her daddy drive?' If you're in the middle of the line you walk to the middle. You briskly and quickly walk directly up to a lady, and you say six words: 'May I please have this dance?'

"The lady, however, has only three words to respond: 'Yes, thank you.' She's not going to say, 'No, get lost, drop dead,' or anything like that. You have no choice. Then what do you do if you're a gentleman? You take your right hand or your left hand, you put it in the middle of her back, and you escort her out.

"What are we going to do while we dance?" he asks.

"Talk," a chorus responds.

"I'm more interested in seeing you talk when you dance than I am in how you dance."

After a few minutes of instruction, it's time for a real dance. Despite his advice, some of the boys shuffle timidly across the floor to find a partner. This does not sit well with him. "You don't keep a lady waiting--ever! Some of you walked over here like your feet are tied together. If I see it again, there's going to be a mention to your parents. That I will not stand for."

Now the music begins, not some Tommy Dorsey piece that their grandparents danced to, but Air Supply's "All Out of Love." The couples' feet begin to move in the fox trot's box step. Some can't help but look down; others have no sense of rhythm. A few actually move quite gracefully. Many of the boys seem uncertain whether it is license or punishment to touch a girl in this fashion.

The record over, it's time for the punch bowl, a ritual in which the gentlemen are instructed to get their partners as many cups as the ladies wish--in fact, to "do everything for her but drink the punch."

One more dance, and it's over. Almost. The final lesson is the receiving line, where the gentlemen introduce their partners, then themselves, to the week's chaperones--and tell them good night. Then they're out the door, running and shouting again.

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