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Learning To Be A Lady

Pageant Program Gives 11 High School Girls A Chance To Learn Proper Etiquette, Social Skills That Organizers Say Will Help Them In The Business World

February 19, 2007
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

The high tea had all the fixings: biscotti, mini cucumber sandwiches, croissants, delicate cookies and, of course, tea. What was unusual were the hosts - the contestants in the Miss Hartford High Pageant.

The pageant isn't until the spring, but throughout the school year the 11 contestants are learning the behavior and etiquette that transforms a girl into a young lady. Mastering the poise to carry themselves at a tea party, such as the one Sunday, is a primary goal of the program run by Catholic Charities with a 21st Century state grant.

Looking stunning in a knee-length cocktail dress, elbow-length gloves and a formal hat, Monique Campbell, a freshman at Hartford Public High School, talked about how the program has affected her.

"I used to be loud - not, per se, ghetto. But now I'm learning to be a lady and to wear makeup," Monique said before the tea, which was attended by their families and held at Capitol Towers, at 470 Broad St. "To be a lady, you have to learn how to sit properly - no slouching, shoulders back - and how to have manners."

Organizer Esther Thomas, who used to compete in pageants, said she chose to have a tea ceremony because corporations are increasingly replacing business lunches with teas. She said it's important for women entering the business world to know the social norms associated with such events.

"I wanted the ladies to understand that no matter where they are in the world, they can socialize," said Thomas, a consultant hired by Catholic Charities to run the pilot program at Hartford Public. Organizers said they would like to include boys in the program next year.

The rules for a tea carry over to any social setting, Thomas said, including lunch in the school cafeteria. They include taking small bites, sipping rather than gulping, eating with a closed mouth, speaking with an empty mouth and, if walking with a tea cup, carrying a saucer.

During the ceremony, the girls also demonstrated the six elegant sitting positions they had learned.

Three years ago this month, I. Michael Borrero, a former school board chairman, gathered Hartford business leaders for a lunch and asked them what they thought the school system should teach students to help them succeed in the business world.

Teach them etiquette, the business leaders said.

Throughout most of the lunch, employers talked about the woeful table manners, style of dress, speech, attendance, punctuality and overall behavior of many Hartford teenagers that made it hard for them to succeed in internships or entry-level jobs. The business leaders said they wanted employees who know how to work as part of a team and can fit in with the dominant business culture.

The yearlong pageant program focuses on teamwork and commitment, Thomas said. The girls are expected to attend every after-school session, arrive on time without gum in their mouths and have their cellphones turned off. If they get suspended or speak rudely to their teachers, then they are excluded from pageant events such as Sunday's tea.

"They learn to be respectful," Thomas said. "They wanted to call me by my first name. I taught them they have to say `Miss Thomas.' I do not respond to just `Miss.'"

The girls described the transformations in themselves.

Sophomore Xiomara Colon said she used to walk with her head down in the hallways. "But now I hold my head up and it makes me look more confident," she said. "It's easier to talk to people."

Meisha Bailey, a junior, said the program has taught her to try to be more responsible. "I learned not to be selfish," she said.

For example, she said, she chose to go downtown Saturday to get her nails done, and when she was finished she called her father for a ride home because she didn't want to take a bus. Her father, who had just gotten home from work, was exhausted, but he picked her up. Later, she said, her stepmother yelled at her.

"Before, I would have yelled at my stepmother, but I accepted the blame," Meisha said. "I'm changing every day."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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