Manners are elementary for one Compton class

THE RIGHT TOUCH: The program taught Jamarre Columbus how to pour dressing into a salad bowl.
THE RIGHT TOUCH: The program taught Jamarre Columbus how to pour dressing into a salad bowl.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The boys from Compton practiced all year for this field trip to Beverly Hills.

They walked off their charter buses Friday and down the red carpet rolled out for them at Lawry’s The Prime Rib. Through the double doors they marveled at the murals and tapestries in the massive dining room.

Seven of the George Washington Carver Elementary School students instinctively headed for table 46, once reserved for no less a celebrity than Denzel Washington.

This would be a real test for the friends -- among a group of 25 black and Latino students who practice etiquette every Tuesday after school. Teachers call them the Gentlemen Scholars.

They can tie their own ties, make toasts and fold cloth napkins in their laps. But they don’t often get the chance.

All 381 students at their school qualify for free lunches, making Lawry’s, a restaurant where the cheapest entree is nearly $30, a rare treat.

By the time Benson Lewis, 10, sat down, he had lost his cuff links, distracted on the ride by a passing Maserati and the sights along Rodeo Drive. Khalil Myers, 10, sitting across the table, had laces loose on one of his alligator shoes, but was quick to monitor the others.

As classmate Ricardo “Ricky” Garcia reached for his water glass, Khalil put out his hand to stop him.

“Don’t touch it until we eat!” he said.

Ten-year-old Ricky frowned, adjusting his Mickey Mouse tie with one hand and weighing his silverware with the other. Ricky’s mother works at Target. His father works at a paint shop. The fanciest place he had eaten before was the Hard Rock Cafe at Universal Studios.

“This is pretty heavy!” he said of the silverware.

“Yeah, it’s pretty heavy -- and it’s pretty real, so don’t cut your finger off!” said Khalil, whose parents both serve in the Air Force. He pronounced the restaurant “fascinating.” Surely someone had rated it “five stars,” he said.

“Six!” Ricky said.

Important rules of etiquette: No elbows on the table, no talking with your mouth full, pull chairs out for ladies and if you don’t like the food, keep quiet. Unofficial rules: Line up for ketchup, tell the kid next to you if you drank out of his water glass or dropped his silverware on the floor.

“No speaking when others are speaking,” said Jalen Gary, 9, shooting a pointed look at Ricky.

“We’re teaching them about etiquette because most of them have never been out of Compton,” said Principal Jacqueline Sanderlin, who started the program for boys three years ago and plans to launch one for girls in the fall. “We feel like exposure is the key to education. It’s not just books and reading.”

Such exposure, she said, can set students on a path to college instead of “prison, pregnancy, violence and homelessness.”

The Gentleman Scholars tried their best Friday, but Benson couldn’t help praising the burgers with his mouth full and slipping a chip down John Griffin’s back. John, 9, used a napkin, but still got ketchup on his good purple shirt. Ricky asked twice to be excused to use the bathroom, but climbed under the table when no one moved.

They all got quiet when Sanderlin stood to make a toast. She reminded all 70 of her students treated to the lunch that they had homework: a composition about how the field trip made them feel and “how it even changed your life, possibly.”

Khalil -- who said he could tell that Lawry’s mayonnaise was homemade -- plans to manage the place one day. John wants to be a lawyer. Benson plans to play quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. Ricky is divided: he will either be a “reptile scientist,” he said, or “superintendent of Compton Unified School District.”

On Friday, the boys shared a more immediate goal as they grudgingly left table 46, “where rich people eat,” slowly making their way back down the red carpet and onto the charter bus back to Compton. One day soon, they said, they will return.