MISSISSIPPI, VINTAGE
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Thoughts on chivarly and the recent NYT column ‘I don’t want my preschooler to be a gentleman’

knightWhen I entered a restaurant today, an African-American man held the door open for me and his wife. I thanked him, entered ahead of him, and held the door open for him as we went inside.

The server led me and another male customer to our tables at the same time, and told us we could choose which table we wanted.

“You want to sit there ma’am? Ladies first. Take your pick,” said the other customer. I responded, “Thank you” and sat at a neighboring table.

Later, when I left, a burly looking guy in a flannel shirt held both exit doors open with his arms outstretched, so he’d be sure one was open when I decided to exit one of them.

I was not receiving special treatment. This is something that happens every day in Mississippi, “the hospitality state,” where many have raised their children to be ladies and gentlemen.

To some, who have been born into a modern world where manners, sensitivity and kindness are rapidly being replaced by the behavior one often sees on drama-filled reality television shows, I’ll explain.

It’s a simple, yet ancient concept that has been promoted in practically every religion – The Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

That was the message Mrs. Laurie Collins, the only African-American teacher I ever had in grades 1-12 at West Union Attendance Center, ended every class with in the 1980s.

As a young student, I routinely repeated that phrase with other classmates before the bell rang, but I wasn’t wise enough to understand that Mrs. Collins might be teaching us the most important lesson we would ever learn – one that might take hold of our hearts somewhere down the line when we were out in the world or school yard, reminding us to treat others with dignity, respect and equality.

This weekend, I read a column on The New York Times website by New York novelist Lynn Messina that generated a lot of reader feedback. Titled: “I don’t want my preschooler to be a ‘gentleman,” Messina voiced disapproval that her 4-year-old son has learned the concept of “ladies first” from his teacher, particularly when it comes to bathroom trips. At nap time, the teacher lets the girls go to the restroom before the boys.

Messina went on to say that she believes this is her son’s first lesson in sexism. Then, it seems, she takes a giant, yet confusing, leap for womankind, saying: “Letting girls use the bathroom first isn’t a show of respect. It is, rather, the first brick in the super high pedestal that allows men to exalt women out of sight, and these little girls (who she presumes aren’t being taught to reciprocate manners) are being fitted for the same old corset. The stays are a little looser, but the whalebone is just as rigid. And this is why my heart aches when I listen to Emmett proudly explain what a gentleman is — because what he’s actually so proud of is his part in perpetuating millenniums of sexism.”

Messina ends the column by saying she felt better after witnessing her son snatch a soccer ball from a little girl on the playground. Then she walked over to remind him to share.

The article generated many comments, the first from a New Jersey resident who said: “Well, as long as we’re not over-analyzing things,” followed by the remarks of a Chicago resident: “You go girl! Teach your son to push little girls out of the way and grab their soccer balls! That’s the feminist spirit.”

I’ll agree that old-fashioned, customary traditions that chained women in rigid gender roles were definitely detrimental, but I think jumping from bathroom protocol to corsets is a pretty big leap.

Messina seems to have an aversion to the word “gentlemen” and “lady.” She doesn’t equate them with courtesy and manners that should be taught to both genders – a practice that strengthens the idea of equality. And that is where I get lost in her perspective, because I know women can expect equal treatment and still accept kindness from the opposite sex.

I found many of the responses interesting, including a Michigan reader, who said she hopes her daughters, “don’t choose young men whose mothers have not taught them the value of being a gentleman.”

Another New Yorker shared what he’s taught his 4-year-old.

“In regards to little girls and other women, we expect him to practice manners, including antiquated ones and ones which will not always be applicable,” he writes. “I want him to know that it will often be expected in his life for him to let women go first, to hold the door for them, to walk outside on the sidewalk, and the hundred other little manners which men may use to respect and protect women. . . .As he is 4-years-old and too young to understand all of this, we simply ask him to let girls go first.”

Another person, who identified himself as a native Southerner, said he has taught his boys to be gentlemen at all times.

“They have been taught to hold doors, give up a seat on a train or bus if a woman needs it, allow a woman to get on the elevator first, and, most importantly, treat all women with respect. What’s great is to watch the reactions of women in the New York metro area when they see my boys doing these things. Some are almost in utter shock. None have ever expressed the kind of negativity I’ve seen in this article. It saddens me that a mother of an impressionable boy wouldn’t recognize that being a gentleman in this day and age is a big-plus.”

One reader told Messina not to deprive her sons of the simple pleasure of being a gentlemen. “Most (not all) women beyond the age of 14 appreciate it,” she wrote, “and their smile at being treated well is reward enough. My daughter has trained a boy or two in her time that he should treat her as well as her father does. I am not worried that her conduct spells doom for our society.”

And an Oklahoma resident summed it up by saying: “Let’s all be gentlepeople and open the doors for each other, and let someone go ahead of us in line. Good manners should not be based on being male or female, just on being a good person.”

There were also some who told Messina not to worry about her son because: “Popular culture will quickly disabuse him of any early lessons in any sort of considerate or polite behavior,”’ said a Seattle resident. “By the time he’s a teen, he’ll be calling women ‘hos’ and, erm, well, it rhymes with witches…That’s what they do at my daughter’s high school. By the time he’s got a job, he’ll have learned to sit and ignore elderly people and pregnant women standing on the bus or subway while he sits frog-legged taking up two seats.”

Another New Yorker followed with: “I can’t believe anyone in NYC is concerned about an overpopulation of chivalrous men. Clearly, you don’t take the subway. If you’d like to experience some ungentlemanly behavior, there are several trains I could recommend.”

And another responded: “Seriously. I encounter men who would shove old ladies onto the tracks so they won’t be one minute late to a meeting that is probably not about curing cancer.”

“It’s interesting that this discussion was sparked by activity in a school, because I’ve often thought that, as “the hospitality state,” it would be smart to have a required “hospitality-themed class” in every public school in Mississippi that teaches manners, respect and conflict resolution to students in grades K-12.

I’m sure a million reasons could be given as to why this is not a good idea, but you never know – in a day and age when school shootings and bullying are issues, it might be simple, yet powerful enough to save a life. But I’m not sure Mrs. Messina would approve if it helped create “ladies and gentlemen,” by her definition.

I don’t completely disagree with her argument. The teacher could rotate the children’s trips to the bathroom to be fair, but they may have other reasons for letting girls go first, as some pointed out.

And there are, undeniably, some men in our society who still cling to antiquated, sexist ideas that women should “remain in their place” and adhere to certain gender roles. Some even demand these traditions, refusing to let women enter doors unless they open it, etc., as a means of control. But gentlemen, they aren’t, if their intentions are not rooted respect.

Today, being a lady or gentlemen for some is more about perpetuating a tradition of goodness that many of us Southerners know is unique to the world. Men open doors for me, and I for them, if I get there first. I’d say it’s a Southern thing, but I’d hope that simple kindness would be extended and appreciated in any region.

It’s sweet and lovely – one of those words you don’t hear very often. And it’s a source of pride for many of us who just want to pay forward random acts of kindness, courtesy and hospitality equally to anyone, male or female, who’s willing to accept.

We all should strive to be ladies and gentlemen with an equal respect for one another.

Got a comment? E-mail me at endyanna@earthlink.com or Tweet me at @lareecarucker.

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