Carefully, painstakingly, the 12-year-olds are practicing their etiquette with the fine art of eating imaginary soup.
There is much to remember: It is impolite to blow on the soup in your spoon because you do not wish to blow it onto your dining partner. To avoid the hot soup at the bottom of the bowl, keep the spoon on top, push out, catch the drips, move it back to your mouth and tip it in. "Out to sea and back to me," the instructor recites.
Earlier, they had mastered cutting the imaginary waffle: Transfer the fork to the opposite hand, tines down, index finger on top, first finger on top of knife handle, knife behind fork; draw knife toward you. "Don't saw!" she cautions.
The four-hour course from Seattle-based Final Touch Finishing School is aimed at teaching middle-schoolers the basics of etiquette, or "rules for social interaction," instructor Lisa Fischer tells the students. But, she says, it's not just about rules. "It's about how we build bridges, not walls, to another person; how we connect with people."
The middle-school age is typically when many parents recoil in horror as their formerly well-mannered children become prickly and downright rude. It is also a time when parents pray their offspring are better behaved outside their own homes.
Tweens and teens see many benefits from etiquette instruction, according to Deborah King, Final Touch founder and a teacher of manners for 30 years. "At this age, they're asking themselves, 'Do I look OK? Am I saying the right thing? Do I fit in?'" King explains. "We teach them to pull themselves together and face the world with confidence."
Students learn how to make an introduction, how to shake hands and how to seat someone at the table. There is even etiquette instruction on proper posture.
Dawn DeGroot of Wallingford Charm in Seattle routinely shows her students into her lovely dining room to be seated at a table set with fine linens, china and silver. Without exception, they sit up straight with elbows at their sides, never on the table. Her etiquette secret is simple. They sit with a quarter under each armpit.
"The quarters start dropping after a while, and they all laugh so hard," she says. She tells them to leave the quarters where they fall, as they would for a dropped napkin.
Formal dining was also the order of the day at a Final Touch etiquette class that King conducted for 29 kids from Southside Church of Christ in Seattle. Dawn Lucrisia-Johnson, whose husband is church youth director, organized the class, rented linens, china and silver, and arranged to have the meal catered.
"Once we got started, we heard comments like, 'Oh, so that's what all those forks are for,'" she says. They were told to dress as they would for church -- no jeans or tennis shoes. But, she says, they didn't have to be told to pay attention. They took it all in.
"What I see in our kids is that they lack polish. My goal is to polish them up a little bit," Lucrisia-Johnson says. "They are on the verge of becoming adults. All of these things will be important to them in their adult lives."
Mercer Island mom Marilee Ahalt agrees. The mother of two boys, 13 and 16, she organized an etiquette and dance class for middle schoolers four years ago. Now an annual event, the etiquette class attracts 60 to 80 students each year.
"I'm hoping that these life skills will serve them well as they go on -- in business and in social relationships," she says.
Apart from requiring attendance in an etiquette class, what should parents do with ill-mannered middle-schoolers?
Deborah King suggests taking your middle-schoolers to settings where they can observe good manners and etiquette, such as the ballet or the symphony or the nicest restaurant you can afford. Set the table formally once a week and have everyone dress for dinner. She cautions parents not to be the "etiquette police." Use phrases such as "this is what I've learned" or "this is what works for me."
DeGroot of Wallingford Charm cautions that parents should not allow their children to get away with rudeness and that parents should also remember to set an example as good-manners models. For example, don't let your children sit down and eat before you reach the table. She is fond of quoting her husband: "What you tolerate, you teach."
"You have to keep at it. You set the standard and children will rise to the occasion," DeGroot says. "It's a gift you give to your children -- the ability to be comfortable in your own skin."
Freelance writer Elaine Bowers lives in Seattle with her husband and two teenage daughters.