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A polite lesson in etiquette

If you’ve ever bemoaned the state of civility in modern American society, Necole Salley understands your concerns. When she learned from guidance counselors at Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School that they were in need of volunteers to work with the school’s fifth-grade girls, she didn’t choose to teach them about fashion or women’s studies or any of the other fashionable things that she might have settled upon. Instead, she chose to focus on the lost art of etiquette. And when she saw that they were being left out of what she considered to be important training, she quickly expanded her reach to the fifth-grade boys, as well.

Table manners, conversation cues, introductions and the like were all among the common courtesies that she wanted to impart to the children. Sadly, they are skills that largely have been lost to recent generations of Americans, and ample evidence of the loss can be found at any restaurant an in nearly any public place in the nation.

The requirement that gentlemen open or hold doors for ladies may have passed from our society at the height of the women’s liberation movement, but even the most basic sensibilities of polite civilization now seem to be headed for the ash heap of history. Texting is replacing conversation at the dinner table, iPods allow us to ignore the others in a room, and hand-written, personal thank you notes have been replaced by — at best — a few emailed lines or even a generic Facebook entry.

There are clearly much larger concerns in America than the coarsening of society. Bad manners and inadequate social interactions are probably not the signs pointing to the end of the republic. But they are marks of a culture that is experiencing fragmentation, and efforts such as that of Ms. Salley are a refreshing sign that not all Americans have given in to the relentless tide that seems to sweep away the gentility of former generations.

They also are evidence that one person really can make a difference in the lives of children. And that, perhaps, is an even more important lesson than which fork to use for the salad course.