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Do You Like My New Red Dress?

02/04/2013 12:55 pm 12:55:37 | Updated Apr 06, 2013

If you're of a certain vintage, you might recall Art Linkletter's classic TV segment, Kids Say the Darndest Things, which aired from the 1950s through the late sixties. I sure do. Linkletter was the Johnny Carson of my youth. Making kids the stars of the segment, Linkletter evoked brilliantly simple answers to life's big questions from hundreds of unforgettable children during those years.

About 25 years ago, a group of school-age children actually taught me an incredible lesson by saying the darnedest things to me. At the time, I had decided to expand my real estate business and start a restaurant. Risky? Yes. But I was on a roll, and I decided to give it a shot. My first establishment in Boston's Back Bay, Devon on the Common, was a three-floor establishment with a pub/restaurant on the ground floor, a lunch bistro on the second, and an upscale, white napkin, martini-with-a-twist restaurant on the third. The pub/restaurant served up Cajun fare, while the lunch bistro offered a variety of American dishes. The top floor restaurant featured nouveau cuisine, marked by elegant presentation and higher prices.

About a year into my new life as a restaurateur, a friend of mine, Joan Kenny, who taught elementary school, asked if she could bring her second graders to Devon for a field trip. "Absolutely!" I exclaimed. "I'd love to give them the inside scoop on what it takes to run a successful restaurant." Although I'd left the education field years before, I was still a teacher at heart. And in one short morning, I could mold a few minds and perhaps even motivate a new generation of entrepreneurs. I imagined the impact I could have on these youngsters. Yes, it would be a pretty lucky day for them.

On that lucky day, 14 children arrived in a school bus, chaperoned by Ms. Kenny. I was decked out in my best "I own a restaurant suit." When I saw the kids pile out of the bus, it occurred to me that trying to impress them with my sartorial splendor was absurd; most of them still had the remnants of breakfast pasted to their shirts, blouses and sweaters.

Joan and I escorted the children into the restaurant. It was a quiet time of day, so I'd be able to take them through the different levels and explain how each worked. However, things didn't go exactly as planned. The first indication that my expectations were askew came when one of the youngsters held his nose and screamed "pee-yew!" when we entered the pub.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

"It smells like my grandpa's basement," he answered.

"Oh, this is where we serve delicious Cajun food. That's food like they make in New Orleans, down in Louisiana. Do you know where that is?

"Yeah, I know where Louisiana is. But it still smells like grandpa's basement."

Well, he has plenty of time to acquire a taste for the finer foods in life, I thought to myself, even though the comment caught me off guard; that was not how I'd envisioned the script playing out. The children were supposed to be impressed.

We made our way to the third floor, by which time the kids were showing all the signs of utter boredom. Then we hit the kitchen and their eyes lit up like the shiny pots, pans and cooking utensils hanging from the ceiling. They really liked the gleaming commercial grade Wolf stoves, Sub Zero refrigerators, and polished stainless steel sinks. My head chef, Norman, took great pride in making sure that the kitchen was at least as spotless as an operating room. No wonder his jaw dropped as he eyeballed the fingerprints that now festooned the stoves and refrigerators.

After Norman told the children about the kitchen, we escorted them back into the third floor dining room, where Norman had a surprise: his incredible fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. I'm not sure what planet my brain was on when I planned the field trip, but I had the wait staff set the tables with our best linen tablecloths and napkins. Within seconds the tablecloths and napkins looked like a Jackson Pollack series titled, Milk and Crumbs 1 - 14.

Then I began my prepared talk about the value of hard work and how it leads to success in life. I was too busy yammering away to notice that the kids were all looking out the window at a large grey squirrel that was staring at me. "Well," I thought, "at least somebody was interested in my talk."

I then asked if anyone had any questions for me. I was delighted to see one young girl in pigtails waiving her hand and squirming in her seat. "Aha," I thought to myself, "there's at least one future entrepreneur in our midst here."

So I jumped on it and said, "Hi, what's your name?"

"Margaret."

"Well, Margaret, what's your question?"

Margaret pushed her chair back, stood up, twirled around, and then asked exuberantly, "Do you like my new red dress?"

"Yes, I do, Margaret. It's beautiful, and you look so nice in it," I responded. It was indeed a lovely dress and a lovely, proud moment for Margaret. For me it was a pivotal moment, the final upstaging of my well-intentioned plans.

Joan looked at her watch and said that it was time for everyone to leave, because the bus was waiting.

I thanked them for coming, and they all thanked me, in unison, as they'd been instructed to do. I walked outside with Joan and stood by as she counted heads to make sure all the children had made it onto the bus. From her seat by the window, Margaret waved to me. I waved back and watched as the bus disappeared down Boylston Street.

So what really happened at the restaurant that day? There were no blinding flashes of insight. No big satori, just a guy who learned that he should have humbled himself by hunkering down on the floor and talking eye to eye about how much fun it is to cook food, even smelly food, for other people; why squirrels make great listeners; and the best way to decorate a clean white table-cloth with warm chocolate chips. Had I done so, it would have been the darndest afternoon.

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