FACETIME- Mrs. Manners: Civility School not tea and crumpets

Robyn Jackson

Growing up an only child in Winchester, Robyn Jackson was taught manners at cotillions, tea parties, and dance classes. But it was the empathy her parents instilled in her upbringing that recently led her recently to open The Civility School.

"Manners were a really important part of growing up," says Jackson, 44, "but all of that is really empty unless you have the empathy behind it. I learned how to ballroom dance, but I've never been to a ball; I've never been to a tea party."

So Jackson– who spent a career as a French teacher and guidance counselor for high-risk youth in city schools– cleaned out her basement, recruited children of close friends, and opened her doors to the idea of instilling civility in everyday interactions.

"We've tried so hard over the past twenty years to instill self-esteem in children that we have cultivated a narcissism," she notes. "There's more focus on self-esteem than self-control, so learning to put others first brings it back to a better balance."

Rather than focus on possibly-antiquated do's and don'ts of etiquette, Jackson's civility criteria is centered on that key word of her upbringing: empathy.

"The message I want them to get is that, although children are naturally self-centered, thinking about the comfort and convenience of others," she says, "enriches their lives."

With her fall sessions– eight one-hour classes for $180– just beginning, Jackson has seen an influx of students, ranging from pre-school to high school. By keeping class sizes small and customizing each lesson based on parent and student input, Jackson has found a way to incorporate old-fashioned skills into everyday usages. Even that stale chore of writing thank you notes can be modernized, according to Jackson– as evidenced by the prompt thank you email she sent after this interview.

"A lot of the skills she teaches are important life skills that are easy for parents to forget about– how to answer the phone, how to introduce people," says parent-of-a-graduate Carolyn Schuyler. "It's sometimes easier for kids to hear these things from someone other than their parents."

As class sizes bulk up through word of mouth support, Jackson hopes to expand her school in the coming years into city and county classrooms. But until then, she has enough on her hands instilling in her sons, ages 14, 10, and 5, those same lessons her parents ingrained in her.

"The 14-year-old hates the idea of this, and would love to sabotage it," she laughs. "The 10-year-old always wants to be the first one with his hand raised, and the 5-year-old is very proud and excited for his class this fall."