Annie Boddington, chair of the Ladies Board at the Petroleum Club, held a plate of tea sandwiches and asked a room full of middle schoolers, “Who remembers the proper way to pass food around the table?”
Several hands went up as well-dressed youngsters clamored to display their manners during an etiquette lesson at the Bixby Knolls social club. Seated at elegant tables in the Petroleum Club’s “Red Room,” members of the Hughes Middle School Leadership Academy carefully passed their serving plates to the left.
“These days, most students don’t grow up learning about fine dining,” Angela Roman, the Petroleum Club’s general manager, said. “We loved being able to teach kids how to handle a meal with white tablecloths and multiple utensils.”
“Eating here is a contrast to eating dinner at home,” eighth grader Zyra Bacon said. “I learned skills that I can share with my family.”
Roman and Boddington worked with Lionel Gonzalez, the Male Leadership Middle School site supervisor, to create this pilot program. Forty Hughes students participated in three instructional sessions, led and hosted without cost by the club.
Hughes is one of 12 Long Beach middle schools with a Leadership Academy. According to Gonzalez, the Long Beach Unified School District launched the Male Leadership Academy in high schools in 2007 to help raise graduation rates and provide social/emotional support for under-represented young men. The program’s success led the district to establish a parallel Female Leadership Academy and expand the program into LBUSD middle schools.
Currently, Robert Borg leads the Male Leadership Academy and Gina Bowley-Blair leads the Female Leadership Academy at Hughes Middle School. Both teachers said they see great value in the program and its single-sex instruction.
Young men can let their guard down and be more vulnerable without girls in the classroom, Borg said.
Bowley-Blair agreed, saying co-ed environments can be distracting for young women, although the two groups sometimes work together for special events like this.
Gonzalez said the Academy provides daily classes and seeks to expand students’ horizons through motivational speakers and field trips to local colleges and museums. He said the “Freedom Writers” story of Wilson High teacher Erin Gruwell inspired him to engage middle school Academy members in a new way.
“I remember the teacher in the movie taking her students to a fancy dinner as a way to expose her students to something some of them had never done before,” Gonzalez said. “I remember seeing this as a teachable moment for the students in the movie, so I always hoped to someday do this with our students.”
Angela Roman loved the idea, “The Petroleum Club is very interested in community outreach. Our facility has a formal dining room that holds 65 people and we are walking distance from Hughes, so hosting an etiquette class here was perfect.”
“From the beginning, the children were responsive and well-mannered,” Roman said. “Many of them stopped to shake our hands and thank us. That’s something you don’t often see.”
“These are good things for young people like us to learn for our future,” eighth grade student Nikolaus Perez commented as the lesson concluded.
Gonzalez praised Borg and Bowley-Blair for igniting the youngsters’ desire to learn and grow.
“Dynamic teachers like this make a tremendous impact,” Gonzalez said.
Academy member Nathan Siquig already had an opportunity to use his new dining skills. After being named the most inspirational student on campus, the eighth grader was asked to attend an award banquet at the Hilton Hotel.
Borg smiled and said, “It was perfect. Nathan was able to go to the ceremony and feel confident using the table manners he had just learned in etiquette class.”