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Newark Etiquette Classes Build Better Lives, One Meal At A Time (VIDEO)

First Posted: 06/20/2011 5:11 pm Updated: 08/20/2011 5:12 am

NEWARK, N.J. -- J. Wesley Tann spent much of his life traveling the world, gallivanting among the most fashionable sets and cavorting with the elite.

He was one of the first black fashion designers to open a shop on New York City's Fashion Avenue, and he designed clothing for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Leontyne Price, the famed black opera singer.

But on a misty Saturday afternoon recently, Tann, 83, was deep in the belly of the Boylan Recreation Center in Newark's tough West Ward teaching the finer points of dining and social etiquette to the children of this hardscrabble city.

"Good living is easy," Tann proclaimed. "All it takes is practice."

Tann's students were mothers, fathers and children all taking part in a city-sponsored program that Mayor Cory A. Booker hopes will take politeness and manners from "abstract concepts" to daily essentials. The city hopes that by improving the niceties shared among Newark's residents the quality of their lives and their futures will be markedly improved -- one fine meal and one properly executed place setting at a time.

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"I just feel that black and Hispanic children need to have an even playing field when it comes to the social kinds of programming that they get," said Catherine J. Lenix-Hooker, manager of the city's department of recreation and cultural affairs, "so that they are able to have the kinds of social skills that make them very productive and at ease in different kinds of social situations."

Youth from Newark often bear the heavy burden of being poor or working class, she said, or the bad reputation that can hang over even this city's most promising young people. Thus the importance of "learning the language of the silver."

"Our youth need to know how to conduct themselves in a public setting -- some of the dos and don'ts," Lenix-Hooker said. "If everything else is equal, it will help them break through these barriers."

The city is offering a number of classes that it hopes will introduce residents to things "globally understood as the niceties," including tennis and golf, and the nuance of manners. The goal is to break down the degrees of separation between Newark's youth and the more affluent youth who might have greater access to those things simply by virtue of environment or familial connections.

The city has managed to squeeze out such programming even as budget woes have hobbled most agencies and programs, including the police department, which laid off more than 150 officers earlier this year.

At the rec center, Tann, a gray-haired and bespectacled man in a navy blue, double-breasted sport coat with gold buttons and khaki slacks, held court over his students.

He hovered over nearly two-dozen eager pupils sitting at tables draped in white cloth and topped with fine flatware, placed precisely an inch from the table's edge. Servers delivered meals prepared by an award-wining chef who worked his magic behind a black curtain, emerging to announce each course.

Tann told folks to step into a chair from the right after it had been pulled out in order to avoid collisions with others being seated. Take a fork in your left hand, a knife in your right, and take small enough bites to avoid unsightly mouthfuls of food while trying to respond to another diner's quick-witted quip or question.

Tann glided from person to person and table to table, urging the ladies in the room to learn to expect that chairs should be pulled out for them.

"Go home to your husband, your daddy or your partner and let them know that you are civilized!" he said.

As for hors d'oeurves, take one at a time. "They're not going anywhere; there will be more," Tann said. "Please don't embarrass me -- just take one."

Katrina Anderson, 15, was there with her mother and 13-year-old cousin. She took the class last year but was boning up on her etiquette for an upcoming trip this summer to Europe, including visits to France, England, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

"I hope to just get better acquainted with the art of fine dining," said Anderson, a high school sophomore, a few minutes before the class began. "I want to impress them," she said of her host families abroad this summer. "I don't want to look nasty when I'm eating."

"It's going to develop and round her out quite well," said Thomasina Anderson, Katrina's mother. "When she goes to different settings she'll be aware or conscious of how to interact with others on a quote-un-quote acceptable level."

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