SOUTH BEND — When Ayden Monroe stepped up to the "interview table," he said his career goal is to be a professional basketball player.
That's a dream harbored by many boys and girls, and adults usually respond by seeking to inject a little realism into the proceedings, telling the aspiring hoopster how steep the odds are of reaching the NBA or WNBA.
But this was Ayden's dream. And "job interviewer" William Douglas didn't try to encourage or discourage it. Instead, Douglas, founder and CEO of the group Gentlemen and Scholars, adopted the role of coach or general manager, asking Ayden to convince him that team Douglas should use one of its valuable draft picks on the Grissom Middle School seventh grader.
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The mock interview is one activity in the Gentlemen and Scholars' free, eight-week "School of Etiquette and Life Skills" program that brings together a group of elementary and middle school boys and girls to learn skills and values that are often deemed old-fashioned, irrelevant or patriarchal.
Douglas and his collaborators, Cory Brazier and Shane Williams, disagree with that assertion, saying that knowing how to treat people with respect and being able to communicate and solve problems are the kind of "soft skills" that will allow these young people to navigate in an increasingly complex world.
"These kids are not too young to know the process of how the world works, so when we do mock interviews, it gets them used to it," Douglas said. "That way we can correct them on the spot and let them know these are the methods that you can use in an actual interview.
"Because they will be interviewing with people for the rest of their lives, so lets get started on it now."
The program is run by volunteers and funded through donations, scholarships and grants.
In a recent session, Douglas, Brazier and Williams gave the students a few pointers prior to the mock interviews. Make eye contact and give the interviewer a solid hand shake.
"And delete 'um' from your conversation," Douglas said.
Ayden said that the exercise was helpful.
"I learned that I have to speak louder, and that I have to come with my best effort and do my best," he said.
Alexaundria Groves, who is Ayden's mother, said that she wanted her son to be in the program because it allows him to learn from positive Black male role models.
"I understand there are certain things he needs from a male perspective in terms of life skills and etiquette that he will carry with him throughout his life …," she said.
The mock interviews even made Ayden realize that communication skills will be important whether he achieves his goal of being a professional basketball player or moves into his fallback job as a lawyer.
"Basketball players have to be interviewed for endorsements and lots of other things, and this will help me be better at that because I will know what is coming," he said.
Brazier said the program instructs children on the importance of manners and the development of communication and problem-solving skills.
"The need for this type of program can be seen just by walking through the hallways of any school," Brazier said.
He added that he and the other instructors seek to modify the behavior of the children by instilling in them the importance of being respectful to their peers and to adults. Key to that is giving the young participants the skill and confidence to be able to express themselves.
Many of the problems that young people face are the result of not knowing how to express the frustration that they feel in a positive way.
Williams said that the boys and girls taking the etiquette and life skills course will grow into adults who use the skills they learned to mentor a new generation of young people.
"We are tying our best with this program to make having manners the new normal," Douglas said.
To do so, the group will have to confront a belief that etiquette is an old-fashioned concept that can sometimes be used to enforce rules that relegate women to a lower social status.
Douglas acknowledged that but said treating people with respect is something that should never go out of style.
"Saying 'yes, ma'am' and 'yes, sir,' 'please' and 'thank you' goes a long way and you never know how it lifts someone's day to hear you say 'hello,' 'thank you' or 'have a nice day,'" he said.
Although the group's name, Gentlemen and Scholars, might lead some to conclude that they only work with boys, Douglas said, that is not true. Girls participate in group events such as their annual spelling bee, and there are girls currently in the etiquette and life skills class.
Douglas said the name honors his uncle and other elders in his family who encouraged him to conduct himself as a gentleman and scholar.
Khadijah Abdullah said that she enrolled her two daughters, Zaniyah Jackson, 8, and her 4-year-old sister, Zamira Jackson, in the class.
"Me and their dad brought them into this program because we felt it built on their self confidence and taught the importance of valuing themselves," Abdullah said. "We felt that it was important to bring them because there are a lot of things they learn in this program that are not taught in the schools."
Email South Bend Tribune reporter Howard Dukes at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @DukesHoward
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: South Bend etiquette program teaches students life, leadership skills