Greta Gerwig’s hit film, Lady Bird, opens with a montage of daily life at a Catholic high school, from morning prayer, to uniformed teens, to a monotone “And also with you” at an early-2000s all-school Mass—a scene familiar to anyone who went to a school like protagonist “Lady Bird” McPherson’s.
Though it’s been only five years since I graduated from St. Louis U. High (St. Louis, MO), and I’ve taught at Rockhurst High School (Kansas City, MO) for a semester, Lady Bird inspired a nostalgia in me that surely also arose in some of the 99% percent of critics who have written so positively about one of 2017’s best surprises. Gerwig treats relationships with grace and deft control, from the mother-daughter conflict that drives such a familiar story, to the father struggling with depression while giving himself totally to his imperfect family, to the social dynamics at play for an ever-developing teenager rebelling ever-so-slightly against the discipline of her Catholic high school.
For reasons that would contain some spoilers, the movie’s impact on me has lingered. Amidst the Christmas season, we’re coming out of a stretch at Rockhurst High School that hasn’t been perfect, but it has opened us up to opportunities for great Reconciliation—the Sacrament so many high schoolers dread and find less necessary than any of the other six (I say this from experience). Yet Reconciliation is perhaps the one constant among our imperfect selves. The student who thinks I graded his essay unfairly has to Reconcile that difference, or else remain bitter; the student I gave a JUG to for repeatedly skipping his make-up test needs me to Reconcile my expectation of him, compared to his classmates. That we’re all so imperfect is a natural reason for pause, but it doesn’t have to be.
Being even half-a-decade removed from high school, it’s hard to reconcile my life as a teacher with what it was like as a student. The strategies some students employ to push back a deadline are what I’d now call lazy, but five years ago I would have called creative, even ingenious. As an ASC volunteer (and the youngest one at Rockhurst, at that), I’m much closer to the average age of the students than of the faculty. Yet I am part of the faculty, and so my expectations do align with those of my coworkers, not my students. That’s a good thing, to be sure; the discipline at a Catholic high school is intentional and effective, but students promise to always test it. And that’s a good thing, too. While we help students be more organized, they help us be light-hearted. So Lady Bird reminds us.
Even just a few years removed, it’s easy to forget the context of the lives of the students at our Jesuit high schools scattered throughout the US Central and Southern Province. We are hoping to form our students to be Men and Women for and with Others, but our schools are one of multiple dynamic influences for each student. Art has a funny way of letting us experience what we haven’t; or, even better, what we have, and have since forgotten. Lady Bird resounds so well because the memories from and formation at a Catholic high school linger. When its students graduate, we long to return, in some way or another, to those four years that helped make us who we are. “Lady Bird” realizes, with the help of a nun at school, that she loves Sacramento (her hometown), no matter how much she wants to leave. And so it goes with a Catholic high school in that town, or more specifically, a Jesuit one.