First Person Singular: Marianne Brennan, etiquette teacher


(Photograph by Charlie Archambault)
March 25, 2013

My dad died when I was 3, so it really changed the whole trajectory of our family. My brother and I got sent down to Southern Maryland. I went to St. Mary’s Academy, and my brother went to Leonard Hall, which was run by the Xaverian Brothers. I can remember my mother saying, “If I do two things in my life, I will educate you, and I will make sure that you are a lady.” She got really ill when I was 15 and went into the hospital and never came out. I was pretty much raised [and] taught by the nuns, and they were sticklers on manners.

Washington Jesuit [Academy] serves low-income middle school boys from the District. They come in below grade level and leave at or above grade level. I’m all about the children, ’cause I think that’s where it starts. I’m about these boys starting to hold the doors open for women. I’m a stickler on the white handkerchief, because I just think we need to go way back and start doing things that are gentlemanly and ladylike. And it’s not the children’s fault; it’s the parents’ fault, because they’re not teaching the children. I have this sort of funny philosophy: There’s two places we need to make sure children behave: that’s dining out and in church. I just think if they don’t have a sense of having manners there, then they won’t have them anywhere else.

One of the things I make them do at the very beginning is I have them fill out a form. What’s their favorite color? What do they want to be when they grow up? Do they have grandparents? And so I say, “All right, gentlemen, now that I know a little bit about you, I just want to give you a little bit about me.” And I say: “My mother raised us, and she got very sick when I was 15. So it was just my brother and I alone. We lived in a little one-bedroom in Glover Park.” So now they’re starting to ask me questions. They say, “You must have a big house over there.” And I say, “No, actually I raised my daughter in a one-bedroom apartment.” I’m standing up there, and I’m telling them I’m a single mom. That’s probably the exact household that they’re in. And so now all of a sudden, I’m not Mrs. Richie Rich from the other side of town. They are not alone.

I’m trying to teach them that it doesn’t matter where we live or where we come from; it’s about how we behave, how we treat other people, how we speak to other people. Some people think that manners are just what fork or glass to use. Manners are how to make a person feel good. Or when not to say something that might be hurtful. That’s one of the mottoes I live by: When in doubt, don’t.

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