"Are Ding-Dongs a good choice for an after-school snack?" Miss Molly Manners barks at eight teenage girls gathered after school in a Fort Lauderdale High School home economics classroom.
"No, they're not," she answers when the kids, who are seated at tables in groups of four, do not respond. Dangling a bunch of artificial grapes, Miss Molly adds, "But these are." The girls nod their heads in aggressive agreement.
"Ooooh, grapes," says a black girl with an elaborately sculptured up-do. "Those are off the chain."
Miss Molly agrees. "Yes. Grapes are off the chain." Slang is an adjustment she's had to make as an etiquette teacher in these, the days of visible thongs.
Emily Post likely would have a lot to say to today's kids. Or maybe she'd just keep her mouth shut. After all, is there room for a lecture on salad fork placement in the lives of today's youths? Miss Molly Manners thinks so, and she's trying to change the world, one place setting at a time.
"People don't put the same value on learning manners as they put on learning soccer," says Miss Molly, whose real identity is Sheldon Kain, a single mom in her late thirties ("a lady never reveals her age").
Kain explains that she has made manners her mission for the past year, teaching first in community centers and neighborhood gathering places, and later adding extracurricular courses at several public schools.
On subjects of nutrition, hygiene, table etiquette, and communication, Kain is downright evangelical. While the rest of America seems satisfied to keep kids alive, unpregnant, and drug-free, Kain wants them ready for polite society. "A few years ago, I noticed a lot of kids in public with bad manners," Kain comments. "I was astonished to see how poorly mannered they were."
Kain says she worked for 15 years as an executive assistant in the communications, marketing, construction, and real estate industries before last year, when she started the Miss Molly Manners program. In developing the curriculum, the Pompano Beach native says she relied upon the skills taught to her by her mother, Susan. She tested teaching methods on her 13-year-old daughter, Amber. "My mother was the original Miss Molly," Kain says. "She was a Barbizon model and a Rockette. My family was very formal and very social. Etiquette was very important."
On some days, just being Miss Molly can be difficult. Kain dashes from one class location to the next, teaching at least three times a day in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. At Fort Lauderdale High, Assistant Principal Rita Burns says she invited Kain to teach the after-school class this fall because she was impressed with the curriculum the teacher had presented to the Broward County School Board. Kain's class at the school is one of many offered free to students after the regular day is through, Burns explains.
Kain's usual charge is $159 per student for the five-week course. For the Fort Lauderdale High course, which is funded with grant money received from the Broward County school system, the teacher receives less.
The students at Fort Lauderdale High like the course. "Miss Molly, why can't this class be longer than five weeks? Can you start another program after this one?" begs Nikitra Mobley, a giddy and talkative tenth-grader at Fort Lauderdale High, speaking over shouts of cheerleaders practicing in the hall and the rumble of an ice machine in the corner. Although the course is only in the second week, Mobley says she's already dreading the end. "This class teaches you to be a better person. Nobody else is teaching us that," Mobley says.
Boys were invited to join, but none has. "Basically, I feel this class teaches you to be more ladylike," says Tracey Toussaint. "I'm a senior now, and I need those skills so I can go to college and be more professional." Echoing the sentiment, eleventh-grader Anie Charles says, "I want to learn about girl stuff, like how to be a proper female for the future."
Kain, too, is concerned about the future. She is committed to bringing the Miss Molly program to children of all ages. A week after the Fort Lauderdale High class, at Eaglepoint Elementary in Weston, Kain addresses a very different group. "Hey, Diddle Diddle," she shouts into a microphone at about 50 kids, ages seven to ten, gathered after school in a huge classroom. The kids repeat the line at the top of their lungs. "The plate in the middle," she calls, and they respond, "The cow jumped over the moon." The children again enthusiastically echo her words and mimic her hand motions. "The fork on the left and the knife on the right, just inside of the spoon."
After sketching a place setting on the dry-erase board at the front of the room, Kain adds the knife outside of the spoon and asks the children, "What's wrong with this picture?" The kids struggle mightily and toss out desperate answers. Children strain their eyes to look at the board and scratch their heads. Finally, Miss Molly surrenders. "The knife goes here," she says, and disappointedly draws it between the spoon and the plate. Kids smack the heels of their palms on their foreheads. They should have known that one.
Not one to dawdle, Miss Molly moves on to dental hygiene. She divides the class into five rows, single-file, and seated. When she asks the children what they know about their teeth, a tiny girl with a hot-pink handkerchief tied over her blond hair and only one front tooth, boasts, "I have seven cavities."
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Miss Molly is unruffled. "You don't want cavities. Cavities are bad. You need to take care of your teeth." Holding a hand mirror and walking down the rows of children, Kain commands the others to look at their own imperfect grins. "Look at your teeth," she orders. "Are they bumpy or smooth? Yellow or white?" The questions become a rhythmic chant, which she repeats until all the children have looked into the mirror. "Bumpy or smooth? Yellow or white? Bumpy or smooth? Yellow or white?"
Then the kids offer up honest answers. Some, like the girl who bragged about her cavities, seem proud of their negligent dental state.
"Mine are yellow and bumpy," says a skinny boy with a tiny head and huge, bespectacled eyes.
After class, Kain explains why she has dedicated so much of her life to this kind of teaching. "I think etiquette is the foundation on which everything else is based," she explains. "If you can show good etiquette and character with your actions, you can walk into any situation and be fine." She hopes to free the kids from the anxiety and embarrassment adults often feel in unfamiliar situations. "The role models girls have today are awful," Kain says. "I've seen the thongs hanging out of their pants," her voice growing indignant. "My mother would roll over in her grave if she knew about that."