The 27 preteens sit, heads bowed, studying their lessons with the kind of rapt attention usually reserved for the latest Baby-sitters Club or Goosebumps books.

"Can you believe it? Twelve different kinds of forks and spoons?" whisper two blondes in party dresses in the third row. "What's a demitasse, anyway?"Welcome to the 1990s' version of mother's admonishments to mind your manners: the Ritz Kids Etiquette Program, a five-hour crash course in courtesy held on select Sundays at the Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis.

For $125 in tuition, etiquette consultant Dorothy Hanrahan will impart the rules of proper decorum - from how to spoon your soup to how to write a thank-you note, as established by The Protocol School of Washington, D.C., to uncouth 8- to 12-year-olds. (Another class, for 13- to 16-year-olds, includes dating do's and don'ts.)

"Can someone tell me how to butter a dinner roll?" Hanrahan asks.

"Cut the bread in two first?" guesses one of her pupils.

"Never," says Hanrahan. "Break off a bite-size piece at a time, please."

"What about the napkin, folded in half, on your lap? Where does it go if you need to use the restroom during dinner?" Hanrahan coaches.

"Maybe you could put it on the table, next to your plate," someone suggests.

"Place it on your seat, and push the chair in after you excuse yourself," Hanrahan gently corrects.

And so it goes. There are lessons on how to introduce yourself - maintain eye contact, smile as you say hello, speak clearly - reinforced by a ball-throwing game. ("Did you know it takes 72 face muscles to frown but only 14 to smile?" asks Hanrahan.) There are pointers on shaking hands ("Never a bone-crusher or fingertip holder position"), telephone technique ("For security reasons, never answer by saying `This is the Doe residence' "), posture ("Pull yourself up as if you were a puppet with a string coming out of the top of your head") and more.

But table manners receive the most attention, and with good reason.

"Knowing the right way to act in party and dinner situations builds confidence and leadership skills in kids," says Hanrahan. "Ultimately, in the business world, most deals are done over dinner - and people are judged favorably or unfavorably by how they conduct themselves there."

Hanrahan didn't set out to become the self-anointed Emily Post of St. Louis. In her 60 some years, she's raised three sons - now 25, 26 and 27 - almost single-handedly (her husband was killed by a drunk driver 16 years ago). She has also worked as a teacher and social worker and has been area coordinator for a nanny organization.

But her current position as independent living specialist for Missouri's foster-care program convinced her that today's youths - privileged or not - are sorely lacking in social skills.

About five years ago, Hanrahan put together her own etiquette program for her foster charges. Last year, she decided to expand her mission.

To that end, Hanrahan enrolled in Dorothea Johnson's Protocol School of Washington, D.C., and was certified to teach the school's curriculum in St. Louis. Ritz Kids debuted in November; about 22 kids attended one of three sessions.

Indeed, manners classes for what some have dubbed the McManners generation are springing up everywhere these days, according to etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige of Washington, D.C., who recently wrote "Letitia Baldrige's More Than Manners: Raising Today's Kids To Have Kind Manners and Good Hearts" (Scribner's, $23).

"Today's kids don't have a clue about how to handle utensils or even ask politely for something to be passed across the table, and it's no wonder. They're used to eating microwave meals in front of the television or going out for dinner at a fast-food restaurant where sandwiches are wrapped in paper and served on a plastic tray," says Baldrige.

Marty Lowe of Clayton, Mo., sent daughters Emily and Abby, 10 and 8, respectively, to Ritz Kids because "social ability is a good skill to learn in life."

"I see so many kids who are rude these days. They're given so much, but they need to learn to be polite, to have a little gratitude and respect," she says. "It's not that I want my girls to revert to sitting in the corner being sweet instead of going for the jugular. I like to think they can be strong and independent and still be gracious."

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service