The Education of Miss Manners: Judith, Nick '84 & Bina '88
In 2013, nationally syndicated advice writer, novelist, and GDS alumna Judith Martin welcomed two cowriters to join her as she expanded the Miss Manners universe to six weekly installments and several new books. These two “well brought up” collaborators, also GDS alumni, were Judith’s own children Nick ’84 and Bina ’88.
“The reason I chose these two people as colleagues,” Judith said, “is not only because they were extremely well brought up, but because they had discovered—both of them, at a very early age—that if their father and I were angry at them for some reason, if they could make us laugh, we would forget about it.”
Humor runs through the Miss Manners books and columns and through the affectionate banter between coauthors. Whether it’s the sharp wit, the clever tone-matching in a response to a tone-deaf reader, or the sometimes hilarious descriptions (“the spork is the tanktop of silverware”), etiquette advice from Miss Manners continues to be as delightful and instructive now as it was at its conception.
In 1978, when the Miss Manners column first began doling out advice on etiquette—“a system of voluntary restraint to avoid antagonizing others unnecessarily”—Nick and Bina were in Middle School and Lower School respectively at GDS. As their mother’s fame grew, they began fielding antagonizing questions of their own.
“What’s it like to be Miss Manners’s daughter?”
“I didn't have anything to compare it to!” Bina laughed, thinking back to how she handled those questions.
“Are you going to correct my manners?”
“No, that would be rude,” Nick remembers thinking. “The family expectation that one would treat others with civility was always there [even before the column].”
“You never associate any kind of formality with Georgetown Day School, but it's a mistake to think that manners are only about formal occasions,” Judith said. “Manners are about everyday life. Civility is very much a Georgetown Day School value. We're all three of us very GDS-reared.”
Judith began attending GDS starting in 2nd grade, just a few years after the founding of the school. Years later, Judith’s mother, Mrs. Helen Perlman, joined the teaching staff. Nick, Bina, and three Perlman cousins—Penny (now Blank)’86, Sarah (now Paulsen)’90, and Jake ’94—are GDS graduates.
The founders were all big family friends, Judith explained, and carried on calling each other by first names, as was their habit, even as the school began. And while the use of first name informality caught on and spread as more families joined, Mrs. Perlman wasn’t having it for herself as a parent or later as a teacher. She was always Mrs. Perlman.
GDS had the “flexibility to tolerate eccentrics,” Judith explained, speaking of her mother. In fact, it was the flexibility of the school in contrast to the rigidity Mrs. Perlman had experienced in public schools that drew her to teach at GDS. The attitude of the school, Judith described, allowed for effective teaching to look different for different teachers to meet the needs of the learners in their classroom; everyone did not have to get on board with “the latest fad” in education. That flexibility and commitment to students and faculty remains a cornerstone of the GDS community today, beautifully articulated in the opening lines of our mission statement: “Georgetown Day School honors the integrity and worth of each individual within a diverse school community.” The notion of using first names to signify equal access to each other was solidified later, though still years before Bina and Nick arrived.
GDS comes up quite often in their family conversations, and they speak fondly of formative experiences there. Bina, for example, thinks especially about performing arts director Laura Rosberg and English teacher John Burghardt, who influenced her love of theater, writing, and literature. As a 9th grader, Bina costarred in The Diviners opposite senior (now Drama Desk Award-winning actor) Kelly Aucoin ’85. During her sophomore year, Bina wrote a winning play for a contest at the Folger Theatre called Romeo and Rosaline, a pre-Juliet story of woe with Shakespeare’s own words. Classmate (now world-renowned playwright and screenwriter) Gina Gionfriddo ’87 played Rosaline. Bina and Nick remember Laura and John as more than just extraordinary teachers; they were intellectual partners in the same kind of intentional dialogue that was encouraged in the Martins’ home life at social gatherings hosted by Judith and their father, Robert Martin.
They’ve each carried with them lifelong lessons about challenge (Nick: “That Wuthering Heights essay for John!”), love of literature, and meaningful, intellectual relationships from their GDS years. After a career following his passion as the head of operations at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Nick is now a consultant on labor relations. “After 25 years with the opera, labor negotiations was one of the things I was most passionate about,” he said. Some of his personal and now professional expertise in etiquette—”always being civil” and “not returning kind for kind”—have been helpful in those negotiations. And his sense of humor? “If you are funny at the wrong moment, people think that you’re not taking them seriously,” he said. “My sense of humor allows me to remember how to be gracious and balanced in life.”
Bina continues her work with Second City, a comedy club and school of improv, where she also does corporate training. More recently, she has begun coaching for Radical Candor, an organization that takes its name and mission from a book by Kim Scott, which in the same Miss Manners spirit of civility urged professionals to “care personally” and “challenge directly.” Bina helps participants improve their professional relationships and leadership skills.
The Miss Manners trio just released two new books in 2020: Minding Miss Manners: In an Era of Fake Etiquette, with Bina brilliantly performing the audiobook, and the ebook Miss Manners’ Guide to Contagious Etiquette, which addresses many of the COVID-19-era-related questions readers have been sending in.
They are still kicking around the title for a sports manners book, capturing everything from the misbehaving parent to the sports figure who fails to understand that “what they’ve just said on national television has horrified a nation,” as Nick described it.
The column continues as actively as ever. “We're living with the consequences of a lot of people feeling that they're not responsible for the effect of their behavior on other people,” Judith said. Readers continue writing for advice on how to be “really, really rude back” to someone or for permission to be awful at home. “Ticking people off in your own home when that’s your entire social life right now? Good luck!” Bina said. And Miss Manners, of course, isn’t having any of it.
The National Humanities Medal winner and author of approximately 70 gazillion advice columns and more than a dozen books still has plenty of advice to give. When she decides to step away, she can be sure she’s left Miss Manners in capable, wise and witty Hopper hands.
Judith lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, Robert, a scientist and playwright. Nick and Bina both live in Chicago.