MacDonald learned many things at cotillion, a Southern tradition of six months of etiquette classes, begun in Newnan during fifth grade. Along with the other 11-year-olds, he learned that when you sit at a table, you wait for the hostess to pick up her napkin before you begin to eat; that you hold your fork as though it were a pencil, and scoop – never spear – your food. He learned that when you pin a corsage on a lady, you place it right above where her pinkie would be if she were pledging allegiance to the flag.
Mac’s older brother, Drew, used to lie on the floor and refuse to get dressed when it was time to go to cotillion. But Mac says he liked it. His father, Ryan, had gone to the same classes, with the same teacher, some 25 years before. Their teacher, Ms. Rosalyn, has spent almost three decades stressing the proper way to behave, emphasizing above all: to think beyond oneself, to search for the good in others, to always be the best you that you can be.
Mac’s mother, Alexis, was born in Maryland and considers herself a Yankee, but she appreciates the way these young men have been raised: “I think it goes back to being a Southern gentleman,” she says. Recently, she noticed that Mac pulled the chair out for her when they went to a restaurant for dinner.
At the final event of the season – the cotillion ball – Mac wore a black suit and bow tie, with a blue pocket square, which matched his eyes. (He had a cummerbund too, but lost it at some point during the evening.) He and his partner won the Snowball Dance, during which each couple has to keep a Styrofoam ball pressed between their foreheads while they dance. If they inch apart and the ball drops, they are out.
After the dance I met Mac and his family back at their house, which sits on a rise on the grounds of the Newnan Country Club; his father also grew up there. Along the walls of the living room are framed photographs of generations of relatives, including Mac’s great-grandfather MacDonald, after whom he was named – a farmer, athlete, and high-school principal from the next county. Above the mantel hangs a painted portrait, given to his parents as a wedding present, of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Mac described what had stayed with him most after his time with Ms. Rosalyn: “Be polite to other people. Open a door for a lady. Don’t shove food in your mouth like a pig.” I asked him what would happen if a girl didn’t want to be called a lady, or if she wanted to pull a chair out for him. That would be really confusing, he said.