Mama Madison: Role models

Q: What adults are less polite than children? A: Politicians.

My kids have been enrolled in Manners 101 since the day they were born. I am optimistic that, with enough maternal hounding, my oldest may actually chew with his mouth closed by the time he goes to prom. And given the tremendous progress she's made this year, it is likely my 8-year-old will have mastered the unprompted "carpool-drop-off-thank you" by the end of third grade. It's not like I'm a freak for formal etiquette--when you have cereal for dinner as often as we do, it's hard to master the whole "salad vs. dinner fork" thing. But I would be miserably failing the motherhood test if I didn't insist on "Golden Rule"-style common courtesy from my offspring.

I also expect good manners from adults, elected officials notwithstanding. But I was more than sorely disappointed -- actually a little shocked -- by some of the rude behavior I witnessed while sitting in on hearings in front of the Senate Committee on Education last week. Public testimony was being conducted on, among other issues, SB 22 [PDF], a bill that would significantly increase the expansion of charter schools across the state. I knew things would likely get heated. But call me naive, I figured all the state senators would have, at minimum, an underlying current of respect for the constituents who took the time to give public testimony.

I am pretty sure Emily Post was doing cartwheels in her grave over the embarrassing behavior of Senator Glenn Grothman, in particular. He spent much of the morning with his head buried in his iPhone, paying little, if any attention to whomever was testifying. I don't care how important those emails were that he may have been checking, he could have at least pretended he was listening to what the citizens of Wisconsin had to say.

And his sole public question for the teacher who had gotten up early to travel I-94 to voice her heartfelt concern over proposed legislation that would change the residency requirement for public school teachers in Milwaukee? A disdainful "And what health insurance do you have?" If he was my kid, he would have been pulled from the room, grounded for a week and made to write a handwritten note of apology to every person he had slighted.

I don't write this post as an exercise in partisanship. Senator Luther Olsen, a Republican and chair of the committee, was respectful, dignified and statesman-like. Alberta Darling, while unable to resist an occasional snide barb and the desire to chat during testimony, seemed generally cordial to the gallery. But Grothman? He was a piece of work -- in the worst possible way imaginable. I left the hearings early that afternoon, feeling saddened that perhaps adult-like behavior was just too much to ask.

The day got better though; I was able to attend my son's middle school Follies later that evening. From a spectacular guitar improv solo, to a couple of well-choreographed breakdance routines, to a 14-year old's poignant rendition of Taylor Swift's "Fifteen," it really was a talent-rich talent show. But far more impressive was how amazingly respectful and supportive of each other the kids were. They listened attentively to each performance, shouted spirited choruses of "way to go" whether the song was Green Day or John Denver and made every performer feel appreciated regardless of off-notes or missed cues.

After a week adrift in Supreme Court race name-calling, legislative bullying and senate committee crassness, it's tempting to say there are a lot of folks at the Capitol who are acting like children. But based on my middle-school experience, I am not sure this is an entirely fair accusation.

Kids, I am happy to report, might actually behave a whole lot better. Perhaps I should round up a carload of 8th graders, take them to witness the next public hearing, and allow them to demonstrate, by example, what Manners 101 looks like.

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