Her students, who range from former hotel industry workers in their 20s to retired military aides in their 50s, watch the 1993 film "Remains of the Day," the story of an English butler (Anthony Hopkins) in the era before World War II, when the great English estates were waning.
They're quizzed on the details. Which side is a dinner guest served on? How does Hopkins stand? Why does he iron the newspaper? (To dry the ink so it doesn't come off on his employer's hands.)
There's a larger point the students are nudged toward: Hopkins knows his place but isn't demeaned by it.
"You don't have to belittle yourself or degrade yourself to serve," Starkey says. "Someone is the giver, someone is the receiver. They're very equal roles."
And, increasingly, from equal backgrounds as well.
The spotlight on illegal immigration is by some accounts causing agencies and their prominent clients to become stricter on proper documentation. Meanwhile, the increasing size and complexity of estates requires workers who are accomplished in technical matters -- programming security systems, for instance -- and proficient in English.
This puts some employers, particularly those who have come into their money recently, in awkward positions.
"Most people have no problem receiving from someone who is a domestic -- a housekeeper who barely speaks English," Starkey says. "It's much more difficult to receive from someone who has a master's degree in art history. This isn't servant material."
After graduating from Starkey, Gardiner worked for a venture capitalist and his family in their 6,500-square-foot home in Washington state. She moved on to a position in Fort Wayne, Ind., taking care of a 14,000-square-foot home, but after three years the cold weather got her down.
Her husband, who is now retired, voted for sunny Southern California, so she worked in Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County. Most recently, she worked part time for $20 an hour with an affluent Rancho Santa Fe family, mostly taking care of their four children.
Through all these jobs, she tried to keep the notion of Anthony Hopkins in mind. He denied himself his one chance at love, with the housekeeper played by Emma Thompson; that was his tragedy.
"You have to have your own outside life," Gardiner says over a tuna salad at a San Clemente seaside restaurant. "You never take care of the family you work for the way you would take care of your personal family. They're not the one you're going to give a kidney to."
The waitress comes by. "How's everything tasting?" she asks perkily.
Gardiner makes a face, and when the server is gone says, "I wish they wouldn't ask that. The food isn't tasting, we are."
This is the kind of criticism you don't offer in the client's home. You're not yourself there; you're an actor playing a role.
That doesn't mean the family doesn't respond. On the contrary.
"The family has a tendency to take you to their bosom. Before you know it, you're a mother, grandmother, sister. And when that happens, you lose an important boundary of respect."
A uniform helps. She's wearing it today -- dark slacks, a blazer, her Starkey pin. "You are in the house but not of the house," she says. It's a Starkey motto.
Some other lessons she learned on the job:
* The task of the help is to make the lives of the principals -- the industry term for the clients -- run as smooth as glass. "The principals don't want to hear any negatives. They don't want to see anything that should have been swept up, picked up or repaired. And if something falls through the cracks and they unload on you, you always have to be willing to apologize."
* Keep quiet. She was preparing dinner while the principals, who liked to love loud and fight loud, were having an animated discussion. "Let's ask Peggy what she thinks," the husband decided. Gardiner declined to take sides.
* Rich people know the value of a dollar. "Principals always want to know if a contractor or salesman will discount for cash. Always. Always."
* What they do with those dollars is up to them. "If they take $60,000 to rent a private jet, it's their business. You can't think about how they just spent in a few days what you make in a year."
A household worker who seamlessly and cheerfully is able to exemplify all these qualities is deemed in the industry to have something called the "service heart." Hopkins doesn't use the phrase in "Remains of the Day" but explains it nicely when he says, "A man cannot call himself well-contented until he has done all he can to be of service to his employer."
It's an impersonal yet intimate connection. The employee's office is in his principal's kitchen, bedroom and bathroom.
"You're giving of yourself, and you're not going to take much back beyond your paycheck," says Norman Meunier, who took the Starkey class in 2000.
After a few months working on an East Coast estate, Meunier decided he wasn't very good at "the hand-holding part." He returned to San Francisco, where he helps the rich decorate their houses. He's his own master.
There is a lingering stigma to this line of work, Mary Starkey concedes.
"The roots of household management are in slavery," she says. "When you go home and tell Mom and Dad you're going to take a course in this, they'll say, 'You're nuts to pay $13,000 to be a slave or servant.' "
Gardiner doesn't feel like a slave. In fact, after a few months' vacation, when she indulged her love of movies by sometimes seeing two a day, she is eager to get back to using her skills, to serving.
A family in Orange County and a couple in Riverside have asked for her employment packet, but Gardiner will make the final decision on where she works. This time, she wants to be especially careful.
"I'm hoping this will be my last position," she says. She figures she has eight or nine years left to take care of others, and then she'll retire and spend her days taking care of herself and her husband.