"I'd like to ask everyone to stand," said the voice teacher from his position at the front of the large, airy recital room. Half a dozen children suffering from preperformance nerves rose from their little arc of seats and waited for further instructions.
"Everyone," the teacher repeated, smiling. "Parents, that means you, too." He gestured theatrically with his hand, and the small audience of adults and siblings clambered to its feet.
"When we are preparing to sing," he said, "we do an exercise that helps us to expand our chests, so that we can use our breath as a bellows. We'd like you to do it with us."
The parents exchanged wry glances but signaled that they were willing to comply. The performers looked sheepish.
"First," the teacher said, "we extend the arms, straight in front." Everyone promptly extended their arms.
"Then we turn the palms up," he said, "and spread our arms out wide to the sides." Everyone did so.
"Now, without changing the position of your palms, lower your arms to your sides." This was quickly done.
"Do you notice a difference?" the teacher asked.
A difference? Wow, was there a difference! Instantly a roomful of ordinary people had been transformed into a tableau from Olympus, or Prussia.
Gone were the slovenly postures of normal life. Every back was erect, every chest had lifted and every head seemed ennobled. The children at the front of the room suddenly looked like performers, regal and poised. The change was similarly striking in the grown-ups and children of the audience. Everyone's clothes hung more elegantly; everyone exuded a little more style.
And all they'd done was to stand up straight.
It was an uncomfortable reminder, this scene, of how much has slipped in the way most of us all conduct ourselves. Once upon a time, inculcating good posture was a cultural fixation bordering on obsession. Girls really were given books to balance on their heads so as to learn to deport themselves gracefully. Boys sought to develop a manly, military bearing. The young invalid in Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden" was afraid to leave his bed, for fear it would affect the curvature of his spine. His dread of developing a humpback was a societal one; in my mother's family, children were warned that they must stand up straight lest the wind change and they find themselves stuck in a slump forever.
Now look around. Unless you're in a ballet studio or the armed forces, the chances are that most of the people you see have no fear of what might happen if the wind changes. We've become a slope-shouldered, crook-backed, bowed-down, bent-over bunch of people, and it's not a lovely sight.
For one golden moment, in that recital room, it was possible to get a glimpse of a different way -- the way of the past. With a word from the teacher, it was over.
"You can all relax now," he said.
It was as though someone had cut the strings to a roomful of marionettes. Down went everyone's shoulders, children and adults, as the gods of good posture became mere mortals again.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at email@example.com.