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Dateline: Washington , DC
Saturday, January 11, 2020


December 17, 1991

For their dinner outing last night, the teenage boys from Sousa Junior High School in Southeast Washington got a crash course in restaurant etiquette from their assistant principal.

Do not go in while chewing gum, Dorothy Patton warned them during a special training session last week. Do not scream across the room at a friend. Do not start eating until everyone else has been served at your table. Don’t cut up all of your food at once.

And remember, she advised somberly: “We do not use our napkin to blow our nose.”

About 45 of Sousa’s high-energy adolescents got to practice those newly acquired social skills at Phillips Flagship Restaurant last night, courtesy of Prince Hall Shriners Mecca Temple No. 10.

The Shriners started a mentor program at the school about a year ago and, at Principal William Lipscomb’s request, specifically targeted a group of “at-risk” seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade males for whom discipline and the social graces were in short supply. The program’s 35 adult mentors work one-on-one with the students, helping them with their homework, taking them to football games and other activities, and sometimes buying them tennis shoes for Christmas.

Or guiding them through the mysteries of an elaborate place setting.

“My mother wanted me to go,” said Richard Fogle, 16, for whom last night marked the first visit to a fancy restaurant. Like the others, he arrived in shirt and tie and dined on vegetable crab soup, salad, honey-glazed chicken and carrot cake.

The teenage diners didn’t get flustered when the salad was served before the soup. They had practiced the servings in reverse order, learning that the outside fork was for the salad and that the soup spoon should be dipped away from them.

“It’s fun,” said Tony Williams, 14. “It’s my first time eating a meal in a restaurant and picking the different silverware.”

Rahaan Jackson, 15, seated at the table next to his mentor, D.C. Department of Public Works employee John L. Wallace, 62, said he had dined out before and knew what to do.

“But not by heart,” said Jackson, who amused his table by doing magic tricks between courses.

Phillips, at 900 Water St. SW, gave the group a sizable discount: Complete dinners ran $7 to $8 each, according to a spokeswoman at Sousa, one of the few District schools to offer lessons in dining etiquette.

There was some disappointment, however, when the youthful diners discovered the rolls didn’t come with jelly.

“The majority of the youngsters have no regular contact with a male figure in their lives,” said J.T. Moore, 58, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant who coordinates activities for the program. “We wanted to provide positive role models and enhance self-esteem and academic performance.”

Valerie White, coordinator of Sousa’s dropout prevention program, praised the mentors for providing “a voice that cares and gives support.” And in a town where there is so much negative news, she said, it’s nice to know some positive things are happening.

“Not everyone is going down the tubes,” she said.

Mentor support, White said, includes giving the students “a couple of dollars for snacks or a movie rather than letting the kids get a couple of dollars the best way they can — if you understand what’s going on these days.”

At first, there was a lot of suspicion on the part of the students as to why they were matched up with mentors. But now, White said, “they’re coming to me in droves to ask to get into the program.”

Most, but not all, of the mentors are retired. They see the youths once or twice a week and take pride in knowing they are making a difference in the lives of the teenagers.

“It’s more like a big brother than a father relationship,” said mentor Roosevelt Martin Jr., 62, a retired District government worker. “He can come to me and ask me for advice and not some gang.”

James Powell, 66, a retired federal government printing officer, said his reward is “seeing better progress in the kid . . . . A student I started with last year has turned all the way around now.”

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