Comportment is not a room on a train.

The late science fiction author Robert Heinlein once said that “manners are the oil of society.” He also said “if all else fails, rub her feet,” but we won’t get into that right now. He was obviously a very smart man. So just out of curiosity I looked up the word “manners” and found it has over two dozen synonyms and a mere half dozen antonyms. You can draw your own conclusions about the significance of that.

For our college students who think the study of English is only about post-colonial, gender neutral, non-dominant cultural relativity, synonyms are words with similar meanings and antonyms (for the sake of brevity) are opposites. One synonym for “manners” is “comportment,” a personal favorite, while an obvious antonym would be “rude.”

If you ever had a chance to see a report card that a grandparent or great or great great grandparent brought home from school, you would have seen a grade for “comportment.”

In earlier times you could be a total genius, but you were still expected to sit up straight, not talk in class and of course never lob a spitball at the kid sitting in the next row. By the way, spit balls work really well with a fat straw and stick easily to blackboards. Of course I only know that from listening to my grandfather’s stories.

Back then, teachers didn’t worry much about your self-esteem. They were there to teach, and anyone who got in the way of that ended up with some kind of ego-crushing chastisement that today would be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

There is no recorded incident of a kid ever dying from sitting in the corner with a dunce cap, but it did teach humility and embarrassment. That in turn became character traits that would serve them well in their later years, unless they went into politics. If you know how to be embarrassed, there is less chance, for example, that you will start a loud argument when asked to turn off your cell phone in a movie theater.

Times change of course, and judging by a quick scan of the daily news it appears no one gets embarrassed about anything anymore. In fact, I think it may have been outlawed by the Supreme Court during the Clinton years. You can fact check that, I could be wrong. The point is that without oil a hinge gets mighty squeaky and irritating, kind of like tuning into a political speech on TV or having a neighbor with a 3,000-watt sound system.

I don’t really advocate embarrassment for anyone, but to that guy with the oil-burning car idling by the front door of the grocery store, show some consideration huh?

Everyone have a fun but safe July 4th next week!

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