The 8 Most Catholic-School Things About Lady Bird

Photo: A24

I love Lady Bird with all of my of twisted little ex-Catholic-schoolgirl heart. Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age movie is a love letter to Sacramento, and to the kinds of bitter fights only mothers and daughters can have, but most of it revolves around a Catholic-school education. Lady Bird is a senior at Immaculate Heart — lovingly called Immaculate Fart — where she and her friends gossip about masturbating while chomping on unconsecrated Communion wafers, stare into space during the priest’s homily, and decorate a nun’s car with streamers and paint, declaring her “Just Married to Jesus.”

The stereotypes about Catholic school — strict nuns, pleated skirts — are usually true, but Lady Bird treats them lovingly. I spent nine years in Catholic school (and then two years at Episcopal school, which was basically the same, but no nuns), and recognized the tenderness Gerwig shows Lady Bird’s all-girls school. As Gerwig put it in an interview with the Jesuit magazine America, “There’s plenty of stuff to make a joke out of [in Catholic schools], but what if you didn’t? What if you took it seriously and showed all the things that were beautiful about it?” In honor of Immaculate Fart, here are Lady Bird’s most Catholic-school moments:

Daydreaming during Mass
Lady Bird’s opening credit sequence shows its titular hero kneeling in mass, letting out a heavy sigh. In the press notes, Gerwig wrote that, sitting in mass, Lady Bird might be wondering where she — a 17-year-old girl — fits into the patriarchal structure of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But pray tell, is there a better place to let your mind wander than as a protestant sitting in a Catholic mass? The act of sitting, standing, kneeling, singing, giving thanks, and sitting again is the ultimate alone togetherness: You’re isolated and surrounded, able to think about what you’ll wear for free dress, how much that math quiz brought down your average, if that boy will ask you to the winter formal, and — what’s that the priest just said? Should you be spending more time with your grandparents, on behalf of your immortal soul?

“Make Me a Channel of Your Peace”

Through the drudgery of weekly chapel, there’s that one hymn you look forward to: the version of “Gloria” that included clapping, “When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land,” which was absolutely a Negro spiritual that no one acknowledged, or my personal favorite, “Lord of the Dance.” “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” is absolutely, 100 percent not that favorite hymn, which makes it even funnier that Lady Bird’s best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) uses it to audition for Merrily We Roll Along.

The abortion assembly
It’s never just a regular classroom lecture. It’s always an assembly, where some well-meaning, soft-spoken woman insists that abortion — or as she’ll call it, “killing babies” — is the worst period thing period ever period. It’s well-meaning, anti-choice propaganda, sometimes punctuated with a hilariously illogical “What if Mary decided to abort Jesus?” (In other words, this is a free period that practically requires some good gossip.) Lady Bird, always the contrarian, speaks out during her school’s version of this assembly, saying that just because something is ugly doesn’t make it morally wrong. She’s promptly suspended.

The popular girl driving a Range Rover
The heart of Lady Bird is in the mother-daughter/child life–adult life dynamic, but its brilliance is in its fully realized cast of supporting characters. (Don’t act like you didn’t have a Kyle [Timothée Chalamet], because frankly I ran into mine on the sidewalk like two weeks ago, and it was hella awkward.) But didn’t everyone also have a Jenna (Odeya Rush): the platonic ideal of popular girl, with her immaculate skin, wearing uniform skirts a full three inches shorter than allowed, driving a luxury SUV that shuttled you from one group hang to another? She had the façade of having her life and boys and high school figured out — later, you (like Lady Bird) will realize that she got what she wanted because she wanted so little. But every Catholic school has a glamazon with the Range Rover, who always elicited a “Who’s that, again?” from your mom when you asked to sleep over at her mini-mansion.

The hot teacher who isn’t actually that hot, but high school’s high school, and pickings are slim
During a conversation with a teacher about love and attention, Lady Bird wonders if one grows from another, or if perhaps they’re the same thing. This is echoed in Julie’s Catholic-school teacher-crush: Mr. Bruno (Jake McDorman) pays attention to her, and so Julie loves him. She knows he has a family and a whole life outside of their algebra class — she meets his pregnant wife, and stares longingly after them as they walk away — but it doesn’t do anything to dull her lust. Having a crush on a teacher isn’t just a Catholic-school thing. It’s just a high-school thing, one that feels a little more mischievous when you’re in Catholic school because then you know God’s watching.

Skirt checks
True hopelessness is when a teacher chastises you for rolling your uniform skirt, and sends you to the bathroom to unroll it. I once had a pet hamster that would always freeze when I opened his cage to feed him, and that’s how it feels when a teacher calls you out: “Can you please go to the bathroom and unroll that skirt?” All you can do is stand still and roll your eyes. Appropriately, it’s during a routine skirt check that Lady Bird starts to be friends with Jenna, the Range Rover–driving popular girl. Lady Bird’s skirt is awkwardly knee-length like everyone else’s; Jenna’s is the length of a Catholic-schoolgirl Halloween costume. For the record, rolling a pleated skirt is careful, tedious work: You have to roll the whole waistband under one time (and maybe twice, if your mom really isn’t hip), then roll it an extra time at the center of the waistband so you don’t get an awkward, pronounced flare on each side.

The inevitable end-of-day question: “Why isn’t your uniform folded?”
Speaking of uniforms: When Lady Bird gets home from a dance, her mom yells at her for not folding her uniform properly. Cue an Oprah reaction: It’s always when you’re sleepiest that you hear the question from the next room. “Did you hang your uniform up?” We all know it was overpriced and know that it takes a long time to iron each pleat, and know that the same button-down will have to be washed and worn again in literally three days — but can’t it just be left on the floor just this once?

Your favorite nun
Gerwig told America that her Catholic school in Sacramento had its fair share of “groovy priests and nuns who were very funny and engaged and open and really truly saw their students.” The nuns and priests that populate Catholic-school classrooms are like any other adults — they can be harsh or peculiar or funny — but that duality never stops being surprising. Lady Bird’s favorite nun is Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), who knows how to take a joke, and is the first to suggest that Lady Bird has great affection for Sacramento. Talking to nuns is the best part of being a Catholic schoolgirl, being continually surprised by their grace and kindness, and in my experience, how much they know about American Idol.

The 8 Most Catholic-School Things About Lady Bird