Gahanna school aide upholds etiquette in trying times

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — An extreme lack of courtesy this campaign season among candidates and their supporters inspired U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday to tell congressional interns: “When passions flare, ugliness is sometimes inevitable. But we shouldn’t accept ugliness as the norm.”

That coarsening of public behavior worries Gahanna-Jefferson schools aide Mindy McFann, who had etiquette drilled into her as a child.

“I thought, ‘Well, I can either get angry or I can do something about it,'” McFann said. Six years ago, after witnessing boorish manners in public, she went to the principal of Goshen Lane Elementary School to propose an etiquette class.

By the glow of “candlelight” (a string of Christmas lights) in Room 118, five Goshen Lane fifth-graders on Wednesday carefully ate their cafeteria lunch — elbows off the table! — while listening intently.

“Your cup goes to your right, at the tip of your knife,” McFann said, as the students emptied milk cartons into more refined drinking vessels. “Thumb goes on top of your fork. Nothing is used like a shovel.”

McFann’s curriculum, which she teaches to small groups throughout the year, is wide-ranging: how to behave online, how to shake hands, how to treat restaurant servers, how to act at a job interview. Manners are about building self-esteem and ease anywhere you go, she said. They demonstrate respect.

“I always tell these kids, ‘I want you to be able to go to the White House,'” she said.

“Mindy has a good heart for teaching the whole child,” said Goshen Lane Principal Melanie McGue. “I don’t even think they realize they’re learning lessons. … Teachers talk to me about, ‘Wow, I can really see some changes.'”

McFann is combating what she termed “Donald Trump-like manners.” Her objection to Trump isn’t his politics.

“What is (Trump) telling children about how to deal with other people? We tell them you don’t hit people. You don’t make fun of people. … The way this is all playing out, it’s scary. But I come here and, for an hour, I feel like it’s all going to be OK.”

Jim Bisenius, a local therapist and anti-bullying coach, said social media encourages meanness and disrespect more than anything else these days. But this election season “seems extra ugly.”

“For fifth-graders, or other kids, I wouldn’t want them watching the banter (of candidates) back and forth,” Bisenius said. But if children do encounter nasty political speech, parents can take advantage of the opportunity it presents. “They should comment on how this person is inappropriate, how they’re attacking someone else.”

McFann thought students would be reluctant to participate.

“I was stunned at how much they wanted to be heard and how much they wanted to know the rules,” she said.

Gahanna parent Melanie Forsythe has seen the change McFann’s lessons have worked in her two sons, Zachary in eighth grade and Tobias, who is taking the class now.

“One thing that really blew my mind, my son (Zachary) started opening the door for me,” Forsythe said. “It totally freaked me out. … And he still does it.”

Forsythe said that McFann has hit upon something that not many people are doing for this generation.

“Our culture is so busy, we forget that there are these social norms that someone took the time to teach us,” she said.

As the five kids on Wednesday practiced passing a platter of chocolate-dipped strawberries, McFann covered broad concepts.

“Sir,” she addressed Abinur Sileshi, 11, the lone boy at the table, “I will tell you that grooming is paramount. Girls want boys to be really, really clean.”

About perfume and cologne: “I’ve had to hang my head out of car windows because middle-schoolers like Axe (body spray) so much. It’s not for bathing in.”

McFann finished by discussing the need to stand strong against bullying: “Are you going to listen to others when they tell you you’re not enough?”

On their way out, the children shook McFann’s hand and thanked her.


Information from: The Columbus Dispatch,