No doubt about it, Beverly Bishop is a brave woman. For the past 14 years she has ventured where few dare to tread -- to the table, where she teaches kids about good manners. And her instruction encompasses way more than topics like proper placement of elbows or the negative aspects of soup slurping. For example, the first session of her table manners class focuses on how to read a seven-course place setting, complete with fine antique china and beautiful silverware.
"Most of them have never seen anything like this before in their lives. They're like, 'wow'," says Bishop. "Then we sit down and we look at: how many kinds of knives are there, how many kinds of spoons are there, how many kinds of forks are there? How do you know what to do with them?"
Her Gift of Good Table Manners class, for children ages 8 - 12, is offered by the City of Calabasas at Creekside Park Community Center. (The next six-week session begins Sept. 29.) Bishop says kids come from throughout L.A. to attend. Some are children whose parents are from other countries and are unfamiliar with American customs. "They know what to teach in their culture, but not in this culture," she says.
Bishop, who also trains restaurant wait-staffs, prefers if students first take her Proud to be Polite class, which introduces the concept of how to be a gracious host and guest.
"We take turns being the host. That's their favorite thing to do, and that's all that they want to practice from then on. They see how the host does all the work, but the host is in control, and they like that. The host serves everyone but no one can eat until the host eats," says Bishop, who received her training to become an etiquette consultant at The Protocol School of Washington. (She also has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from CSUN.)
Things get far more detailed in the table manners class. In the second meeting, students are taught the distinctions between Continental and American styles of dining and get to choose their preference. Next, kids learn the intricacies of how to eat soup. Bishop explains: "There's a whole lot to how to eat soup. Like never stir it. You scoop away from you, and just scoop the very top. You wipe the drip off. You sit up straight and you lean forward and you eat over the bowl. You bring the soup to you, not your face to the soup. You sip out of the side of the spoon, you don't stick the spoon in your mouth."
At this point in the interview we wondered if grown-ups may take her class. Bishop says that she is frequently asked that question. But, sorry, this is a kids-only program. Bishop has declined offers to give tutorials for adults at dinner parties, because "it isn't knowledge, it's a skill. It's something you have to learn a little at a time and practice and build on. That's what I do with the kids. We practice and we build on it...It takes time to know how to do these things. You don't easily change how people hold their knife and fork."
The grand finale of the class is a 2 ½ hour, five-course meal at a fancy restaurant, where students get to impress their parents with what they have learned. Bishop strongly believes these skills can help children far beyond the dining room table.
"For me, the reason that all of this is important, and the reason that I teach it, is that it makes life easier. It makes social life enjoyable, because you know what's expected of you. You know how to behave," she says. "And then you can actually have fun. The more you know, the more comfortable you are."