Bayou schools may mix math with manners

Good manners have seldom gone unnoticed in the South. Boys in the region still learn to bow. Girls often curtsy.

So perhaps it's not surprising that Louisiana is about to add a new rule to the nation's unofficial book of etiquette. It is poised to become the first state in the nation to force school children to address teachers with honorifics such as "sir" or "ma'am."

Call it Miss Manners writ large.

To supporters, the move represents an attempt to foster civility and morality in the classroom - something that could and probably should be duplicated across the country, if anyone pleases. But others consider it a quaint symbolic gesture, noting that deportment isn't something you can legislate like a sewer tax.

"My theory is, if you have a little respect in the classrooms, you're halfway to discipline," says Gov. Mike Foster (R), a supporter of the move who is expected to sign legislation today making it official.

Certainly Louisiana is in polite company in trying to curb what many believe is the coarsening of American society. In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) recently handed out palm cards to police instructing them to say "please" and "thank you" when addressing the public.

Earlier, he suggested fines for New York cabbies who curse at customers. Congress has instituted annual retreats for political leaders to learn how to be more decorous when debating, while religious leaders are staging civility "summits" to remove some of the demonizing other religions from the pulpit.

But Louisiana is the first state to want to make better deportment mandatory in the classroom. The "respect" legislation now awaiting the governor's signature will require students to address teachers and other school employees, if not as "ma'am" or "sir," then as Mr. Mrs., Ms., or Miss when calling them by name.

"If the legislature doesn't legislate some respect, who is going to do it?" asks state Sen. Donald Cravins (D) of Arnaudville, the bill's sponsor. "We certainly have a responsibility to salvage our children and try to change the course of events that are taking place in our country today."

It is uncertain how civil, or uncivil, schools will be in enforcing the law. The bill leaves it up to school boards to decide punishment, though the House eliminated expulsion or suspension as an option. The new law will go into effect this fall in kindergarten through fifth grade. Other grades will follow each year.

"It is sad the country has come to this," says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Chicago. "We need to raise the standards of education both at home and at school. I think with all of these new problems in the schools, that this law isn't too much out of line, but I'm not sure a law is the best answer."

Indeed, many educators insist long-term character education is a better solution than legislating politeness. Character education has long been a staple of Southern schools, especially in Arkansas and Georgia. In these states, students are taught honesty, fairness, and respect along with gerunds and Chaucer.

"We think it is a well-meaning gesture, but it is a small fix for a big problem," says Josie Plachta of the Character Education Partnership in Washington. "Character education ... would be more comprehensive."

At least, say many supporters, the legislation is an initial action toward an increasing problem - students respecting teachers, one another, and themselves. "If you don't start in the first place, you don't start at all," says Marc Braden, a teacher in Shreveport. "A Band-Aid ... is better than nothing."

Mr. Braden and his wife, Bethany, teach in two lower-income schools in Shreveport. He coaches football and girls' softball as well as history at Captain Shreve High School. Bethany teaches sixth and seventh grade at Turner Middle Elementary School.

Growing up with Yankee parents, Mrs. Braden never said "yes ma'am" or "no sir." They are "definitely a Southern thing," she says, but adds: "It commands a lot more respect than a simple yes or no."

In 1993, the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted a national survey on manners. It showed that 82 percent of Southerners and 52 percent of non-Southerners were taught by their parents to call adults sir and ma'am.

Eighty percent of Southerners and 46 percent of non-Southerners said they were encouraging their children to do the same.

"Most of the kids down here are taught to say, 'yes ma'am' and 'no ma'am' from the time they can talk," says Samuel Dixon, superintendent of the Tallulah School District near the Mississippi state line. "It's just the way you are brought up."

Mrs. Braden says many students come from single-parent families and may not learn manners and proper behavior at home. In fact, she says many of her students think of themselves as adults since that's the way they're treated at home.

As for her classroom, she's already requiring students to use the new honorifics. "I think the rest of the country can learn from us," she says. "Bottom line, manners are important."

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