Mabel, Mabel, Sweet and Able

Do you remember this famous lyric, sung to the tune of Dvorak’s Humoresque #7? (You can check it out in the 36 second YouTube video uploaded by “narutoshippuudenfani”at the end of this post.)

Mabel, Mabel, sweet and able, keep your elbows off the table, go on out and get yourself a man . . .

In 1964 then-President Lyndon Johnson announced his War on Poverty in his state of the union address. Then the Office of Economic Opportunity introduced an 8-week program they called Project Head Start in the summer of 1965 as the solution to the cycle of poverty. I’m not sure how “need” was determined because my young niece, whose family lived frugally but not in poverty, was placed in the program at the school where she would eventually enter first grade. The program was controversial, but as far as I can tell is still ongoing.

The first time I saw her after that experience I asked her what she learned in Head Start. “Oh, they just teached us our minners,” she said in her wonderful southern drawl, and then went on to ask we could stop for a Coca-Cola. I strongly suspect that in her mind–due to her limited life experiences at the time–minners had more to do with tiny fishes in the creek (minnows) than with the lack of social graces (i.e. manners) in her life.

Recently I was watching a television show with a feature on the young people entering today’s business world. Some of those same college graduates who now routinely wear blue jeans and sandals to work and change jobs if the boss speaks harshly–or fails to recognize how special they are–are now busy attending etiquette schools to learn manners. Seems they need to learn how to eat at formal affairs that require more than fingers or a plastic fork.

Not long after that I read a letter written to a syndicated “advice columnist” in our local newspaper that asked if it was still considered bad manners to put your elbows on the table when dining out in restaurants. The letter writer said she had been taught all her life not to even touch the table with her elbows, yet she sees people doing it all the time, even in the posher eating establishments. She wondered if the rules had changed or if manners even mattered anymore.

Okay, I’ll admit that when I’ve been out to dinner with friends–even in the posher places–I’ve sometimes rested my elbows–both of them–on the table during pre-dinner conversation. I’m not sure why. I think I use them to prop my chin as that seems to be a familiar habit of mine. But as soon as the food begins to arrive, I remove them immediately. To me it’s a matter of common sense. When the table is full of food and drinks, you don’t need to complicate things or risk knocking something into your lap by placing your elbows on a crowded table. I suspect the rule was made in the first place to accomplish just this sort of common sense.

Now, if my math is right, some of the young twenty-somethings entering the workplace today are the kids of the kids who may have been in the initial Head Start programs. In spite of President Johnson’s war on poverty and the head start program, those parents have failed to teach their kids “minners“. We’ve all become so much more casual in our attitudes that apparently few of us would know how to act or which fork to use in the event we were invited to the White House. Whether we live in poverty or higher on the economic pole.

So what do you think? Does Head Start accomplish the task it sets for itself? Do we need to re-think the part of the Head Start program teaching manners and extend it to kids of all ages and income levels so it won’t be necessary to take remedial manners training? Or do you think Mabel even needs to worry about keeping her elbows off the table? Also, and maybe just as important to ask ourselves, why in the world are there people who still think Mabel needs to go out and get herself a man?

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7 thoughts on “Mabel, Mabel, Sweet and Able

  1. Well, I was born in the 60s and I am a 40something, not a 20something entering the woirk force. In fact, if I had started with everyone else, those 20somethings would be my kids. I actually did community service in HS teaching/helping at Headstart and I assure you, it serves a valuable purpose. The same purpose that is served here in Germany, for free,by kindergartens and in the US, for an amount unaffordable by many, by pre-school. Inthe inner city, it serves breakfast and lunch to infants that might otherwise go hungry, allows them to socailize, perhaps with English speaking teachers when their parents might not speak the language, and be exposed to didactic concepts. It’s a vital program, and one that deserves greatly increased funding.

  2. As a social scientist who may know some etiquette, but of course pursued academia in order to avoid actually USING it, i have to concur. Head start is one of the absolute best investments ever by the feds. And i say this based on the real data, which i’ve seen. It’s purpose was largely school readiness – not “minners” – and it definnitely did the world a service (and continues to do so although at constant threat of being cut).

    My suspicion about etiquette? we’re always changing as a culture – i think etiquette was on the decline post 60’s as an elitist, irrelevant practice, but now it’s coming back into fashion again, so people are paying to acquire the skills….

  3. Thank you both for believing in the value of the Head Start Program. I was a teen mom when my children first began in the Head Start program. Not only did it help them prepare for school success, it helped me become a better parent. It gave me a job that turned into a career of helping others. I have been working for the program for 24 years, first as a teacher’s aid and now the executive director. We are constantly fighting off negaitve attacks at the program, and appreciate it very much when someone without an agenda thinks we are doing a good job!

  4. Head Start is certainly a better investment of our federal dollars than the No Child Left Behind program. They may not be left behind but that is only because they are getting moved along without learning anything. When the school system admittedly “teaches to the test” all a student learns are unrelated facts.

  5. Three out of three (favorable comments) ain’t bad. Thanks for all your comments. It’s good to see the old USA did something that turned out okay once upon a time. I heartily agree with geezer above that the no child left behind program must go!

  6. Interesting comments on Head Start. I would say that you need to look what it was supposedly to address–poverty. Is poverty less than it was in the 60’s? No. Had it been successful we wouldn’t be talking about increasing the funding, we would be talking about how effective it was at its job.

    Certainly if it was about “minners” it would easily be considered a total failure.

  7. Let me think, Joel. Actually I don’t think Headstart was meant to address poverty, but simply to give those children with less exposure a little and literal “head start.” It’s not likely parents with little disposable income ever treat their children to natural learning situations such as museums and other institutions that offer broadening for the mind. Minners is simply a colloquial way of pronunciation minnows in the south. Thanks for your comment.

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