The boys lined up, dressed like churchgoers, waiting for the next girl to step out of the limo.
“Go give her your arm.”
“Get her books.”
Nearby adults mimicked etiquette adviser Emily Post as they encouraged the eighth-grade boys at Futures Academy in Buffalo to “man up” on Gentlemen’s Day.
The boys were charged with spending all of Wednesday treating their female classmates like “queens,” opening doors, pulling out chairs, carrying books, dropping bits of flattery and otherwise engaging in acts of gentlemanly courtesy that are either unfamiliar or unpracticed among many boys in this age group.
“The TV, the videos and the songs kind of dominate how they behave,” said Principal Tonja Williams.
Wednesday’s exercise was part of a larger and continuing effort to encourage boys and girls to treat the other gender with respect and to use words and behaviors that reinforce positive messages. Williams said she and the head of the school’s mentoring program talked about the behavior of their students and particularly the behavior between boys and girls.
“It bothered him, and it bothered me,” she said.
The Rev. Gene Coplin, head of Project SOW – Schools of Wisdom – at Futures Academy, said that was the spark for Gentlemen’s Day.
“We decided to do something for the girls and guys that they will never, ever forget for the rest of the lives,” he said.
A donated stretch Hummer limousine brought the eighth-grade girls to the school entrance at 10 a.m. as the boys waited in shirts and ties, with roses in hand, marking the start of a day of extreme politeness. Most of the eighth-grade class, more than 30 kids in all, participated.
Like anything adolescents try for the first time, this experience was a bit awkward.
Most of the boys met and escorted the girls nicely through the school during the first hour, but courtliness and decorum had generally given way to tie tugging and giggles by the time cake was served a short time later.
Tillman C. Ward Jr., who works with the kids as part of the mentoring program at the Carlton Street school, wasn’t discouraged.
“They’re so young,” he said. “They’re not going to understand just yet.”
In a few years, he said, they’ll be in high school, and they’ll remember this.
The boys had varying opinions about their role in the daylong affair.
“It gets us ready for prom, that’s what I think,” said Semir Smith, 14. “I think it shows us how to treat a girl.”
When asked how he intended to treat his queen of the day, he rubbed his cheek and thought about it.
“I’m going to talk nice to her,” he said, finally. “I’m going to help her down the steps and open doors.”
Several of the girls remarked that this behavior would be a sharp departure from the past, when they’ve been on the receiving end of unkind taunts.
“They got no respect,” said Tzajah Bellot, 14.
Ron Stewart, sociology professor at SUNY Buffalo State who does research on black males, applauded the school for hosting a Gentlemen’s Day even if some may consider it an old-fashioned, non-academic affair that belongs under the purview of parents, not schools.
“I don’t have any problem with a school trying to impart to young males, particularly young minority males, how to treat their female counterparts,” he said. “You’ve got to be holistic. As students, they deal with academic and non-academic issues, and sometimes the non-academic issues can trump the academic issues.”
Many parents seem to agree, and some were busy snapping photos Wednesday.
Tamaris Taylor, 15, was decked out in an ivory suit. He said his mother had bought him the accompanying white tuxedo shirt and baby-blue bow tie the day before.
“It’s my first time being nice to a girl like this,” he said.
Issues of manners and etiquette may not be addressed in homes where quality time is short for single parents, working moms and underemployed or jobless dads, said Stewart, the sociology professor. Even when there are parents showing positive gender relations, they’re fighting against a negative tide of pop and hip-hop culture that objectifies and sexualizes women.
“You don’t get the types of portrayals and positive images you used to get in terms of television,” Stewart said. “It’s just a lot of trash. The music is just terrible. I have been on some panels and really indicted the music community.”
He and other experts said they hope the one-day event is sustained as part of a consistent message to the youth at Futures Academy. The mentors will continue to work with the boys through high school. Program organizer Coplin said he hopes to expand the mentoring program to more grades and schools.
“We need to start changing the culture,” he said.