Jewish World Review Sept. 1, 1999 /20 Elul, 5759
The manners movement began in Louisiana, where legislators recently passed a state law making it mandatory for children in kindergarten through fifth grade to address teachers and other school employees as "ma'am" or "sir," or to use appropriate titles. For example, "Hey, Burr-head," the title Mark McDuff used to address our 11th-grade math teacher, would be considered inappropriate under the new law.
Now South Carolina is considering following Louisiana's lead. Nothing is final, but some educators and legislators find appealing the concept of teaching character accompanied by symbolic language.
Others, though they may approve of manners conceptually, see such laws as an unlikely antidote to the coarseness and disrespect that characterize American culture these days. Irony smirks at a society that insists on "ma'am" against the current cacophony of four-letter words.
"Yes, ma'am, I said this homework sucks."
The motivation behind ma'am legislation is understandable. Respect for authority is at a historical ebb. Children sass or ignore adults without consequence; profanity is as commonplace on playgrounds as on street corners; television and movies have popularized vulgarity through language, gestures and behavior that would have gotten children a good whuppin' or a mouth-washing a generation ago.
In such context, insisting that a child show respect to his teachers by addressing them with a title seems a minimal stab at civility.
The problem, as always, with morals and manners is enforcement. What happens to children who fail to "ma'am" their teachers? Are they law breakers? What about all the little urchins going home to parents who don't reinforce the rule, or worse, who eat with their mouths open?
In Louisiana, individual schools have been left to interpret the law and to devise their own punishments, excluding expulsion or suspension. Some plan to issue warnings, followed by letters home to parents, followed by parent conferences. Just the sort of extra work teachers need to fill all that spare time.
Instead of paying teachers salaries, maybe we should start paying them child support. We've asked them to feed our children, conduct medical inspections, teach them about sex and now enforce manners. Maybe parents could handle reading, writing and arithmetic at home in between soccer and "South Park."
Meanwhile, "ma'am" is a cultural invention, a remnant of the Old South that isn't used in other parts of the country from which some now-Southern children hail. While some Southern born 'n bred children may grow up in ma'am households, those "from off" - that's Southern for people who can't produce a tattered Confederate flag from the family cedar chest - find "ma'am" as alien as grits. What we don't need is another reason for parents to take sides with their children against teachers trying to get a little respect.
"Ma'am," bless her heart, has no mandated place in the public domain. The word isn't even in most dictionaries. Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary offers only this: "after 'yes' often 'em' n: madam." I guess ma'ams don't take "no" for an answer.
However well-meaning our intent, the rule of manners is good; the law of ma'am ridiculous. This is government micromanagement at its silliest. It's an unenforceable law that sets itself up for disrespect and ridicule - the opposite of its intended effect.
Like mandating that people chew with their mouths closed, it's grand idea, but not one for the
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