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from the soapbox

I've seen manners

Karen vanderVen

Recently, there has been discussion of manners on CYC-Net: Should they be formally taught to youth, or conveyed implicitly by our attitudes and approaches ? In my opinion, probably both. But there is a third aspect “seeing where and when youth show us the true meaning of manners in some profound and unexpected ways, and learning the lessons they have to teach.
I think of the following true stories ...

Wearing an old running T-shirt and running shoes, I headed for the bus stop to take me to an obligation for which the old clothes were appropriate “just as being late (for the expected responsibility that awaited me) would have been inappropriate.
But, I was late. Just as I arrived at the bus stop the bus pulled out, and even though I ran down to where it had stopped for a traffic light, the driver didn’t open the door. Either you got the bus at the official stop or you missed it. Calculating quickly the number of lights up ahead, I figured that, if I ran, and if I were lucky, I could actually go faster than the bus would be able to thread through the busy traffic and the required traffic light stops.

Thanking myself for trying to stay in shape during the past year, I picked up speed and jogged down the side walk and across the streets. The bus jolted on, starting and stopping. I was catching up, and I thought that I might, just might, make it at its third stop. The door was open. By this time I was huffing and gasping for breath, but just as the door was about to slap shut, I reached around the railing and pulled myself into the bus.

As I stood, red-faced and snorting, facing the passengers and looking for a seat, there was a brief pause with the subtlest of smiles lighting up many of the faces. I realized that many of my fellow passengers had been looking out the windows, hoping that I would make it. Then the passengers turned back to their newspapers and conversations, and I was forgotten.

Seeing a seat near the front, I flopped into it. My face began to redden and drip with sweat and I was still gasping. I realized that I had become profoundly thirsty. As the bus lurched on, my gaze settled on a teenage girl sitting across from me “and quickly began to mask a feeling of disapproval. She was chewing a wad of gum, her jaw moving noisily up and down. She had pomaded spiky dark blond hair highlighted by a streak of fuchsia. She sullenly leaned on a small knapsack on her lap. Her long nails were painted bright pink. Worst of all, she wore blue jeans that were held together by metal chains down the external seam, showing bare skin. To avoid thinking about my thirst, and to cool off from the run, my mind began to drift as I reflected upon the inappropriateness of teenagers such as this one. My usual acceptance and enjoyment of a wide variety of youth was forgotten in this immediate reality. How blatant and distasteful her dress. Didn’t she have any sense of restraint ? And the gum chewing. Did the other passengers have to be subjected to watching and hearing this ?

Suddenly, and without so much as a forward glance or a word to anyone, she reached into her back pack, pulled out an unopened bottle of distilled water, leaned across the aisle, and handed the bottle to me ...

* * *

I longingly stood on the grass near the basketball court at a residential treatment center, watching a lone youth “tall, slender, dressed in droopy slacks and sweat shirt, and with a very “large" haircut “play by himself. He would spin dribble adroitly and run under the basket making a reverse lay-up. He would take the ball out again, dribble it low back and forth between both hands, stand up, and take it to the hoop, finishing off with a smooth little hook shot.

I was serving as a consultant to this program. I had already spent an hour or so inside observing and talking to staff, and the whole group had gone outside to “kill” about 15 minutes before it was time to go into the dining hall for dinner.

The staff and other youth milled around chattering in small groups while I, drawn to my favorite game like a magnet, had gradually edged aside to watch the lone youth on the court. “Oh, how I want to play," I thought to myself. The thought was quickly followed by the reflection that how was anybody to know that, and that if they did, it would certainly be inappropriate for me, a “mature" woman in a consultant role to do so.

Suddenly the youth “call him Jake “paused, holding the ball in his arms and glanced over in my direction. “Hey, lady," he called gruffly. “Want to play? “ Faster than Michael Jordan would dunk an alley-oop pass I was out on the court.

" Why don’t you show me some of your moves?" I suggested. “I have a lot to learn". First he slow-motioned his dribble to and under the basket, gradually turning his body so he could just see the basket to ease the ball up gently against the backboard and so I could see how he did it. “You try it," he said. “Just take it slow". And so I did, and will wonders never cease, the ball went in even though my motions did not have the smoothness of his. He smiled and I tried it a few more times. “OK," he said, “Let’s try a hook shot." He repeated the demonstration and I took several rounds at trying to imitate him.

This went on for almost 15 minutes until the group was called for dinner. I thanked him for the lesson, said I had enjoyed playing with him “to his nod and smile “and the group went in for dinner while I went on home.

A few weeks later I returned to the center for my next consultant visit. “Where’s Jake?" I asked a staff member. “Oh, we couldn’t handle him here" was the reply. “He was too difficult. We sent him to a more secure setting".

* * *

Perhaps the young woman in the bus would not have made it into the Social Register. Perhaps the staff couldn't handle Jake and he had to be sent away. I don't know. But I definitely know one thing: That I had seen manners.

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