Party Animal

Heather, Henry Le, Emily Blethen and Andy bite into their sweet rewards.
Heather, Henry Le, Emily Blethen and Andy bite into their sweet rewards. (Veronika Lukasova)
By Christina Ianzito
Sunday, June 3, 2007

Emily Blethen, 7, and Heather O'Brien, 8, carefully place cupcakes on their classmates' paper plates. Their teacher, Elizabeth Aquino, 32, is pleased. "I like how the servers are going over left-hand shoulders," she says. "And napkins should be in our laps, please."

"So you don't get all messy!" adds 6-year-old Andy Heneghan.

This group of 12 kids, ages 6 to 10, are in the otherwise empty cafeteria of Anthony T. Lane Elementary School in Alexandria for the last of their eight Saturday morning classes on manners, offered through the Fairfax County Park Authority. It's the first such course Aquino, a former second-grade teacher, has ever taught.

Aquino, a petite blonde from a small town near Pittsburgh, emphasizes that this "is not a pretentious course. To have manners doesn't mean you have to be snooty." She came up with the idea while working in elementary schools, she says. "I noticed that some kids didn't have strong role models to teach them manners."

Today's lesson includes a cupcake-and-Kool-Aid party to demonstrate all the class has learned -- which appears to be a lot, judging from the hands clasped together primly in laps. But that's before Andy starts licking off the frosting, decorated to look like a dog's face. "I like the frosting, but I don't like the rest of it," he announces.

"Oh, thank you for saying that," responds Aquino, kindly. "You can just leave it on your plate."

The most enthusiastic students here are probably sisters Valeeria and Natalia Vargas, 9 and 7, who arrive a few minutes early, grinning and wearing coordinating red dresses and matching pink flower barrettes. They're the party's designated "greeters," so Aquino faces them toward the door, where they take their classmates' coats and pile them against the cafeteria wall. The girls' mother, Magda, reports great progress since the course began. "They remind one another at dinner, 'Watch your posture!' Or they say, 'Daddy, don't forget to say Excuse me! ' "

Class always starts with Aquino asking the children to relate one polite thing they did the previous week, and today Zachary Hecker, 10, raises his hand to announce, "I said 'Thank you' to the lunch lady."

"Wonderful!" says his teacher. "I bet she'll save you an extra piece of pizza next week."

By now, everyone has figured out that "manners" are usually just about being nice.

In the "Jeopardy!"-like game they play next, the two teams are called the Polite People and the Kind Kids. Subjects include "mealtime manners" and "sportsmanship."

Conor Daugherty, 7, is asked how he'd order a cheeseburger at McDonald's. He demonstrates: "May I have a cheeseburger?"

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