09/02/2014 03:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Spilled Milk : Back to (Catholic) School

A couple of years ago, when our boy learned his his older sister was applying to an all-girls' school, his reaction was typically profound in its levels of understanding and insight:

"That's the stupidest thing you've ever wanted, Elizabeth. Way stupider than bras. What idiot would pick a school where there's no boys allowed?"

His sister's response was swift and deadly.

"This idiot. Somebody who's spent her whole life stuck in a house with two dads and you. You have no idea how long I've waited to find a school like this. Sometimes a girl needs to be in a place where the estrogen can flow."

Verbatim. She was 11. I think I applauded.

This all-girl nirvana wasn't just a school in her mind. It was Mecca. If Mecca were, say, located down the street from our house and run by Catholics.

It had never occurred to Kelly or me that we might one day send our daughter to a Catholic school. Like most non-Catholics, our primary exposure to parochial school had been through the movies. But as terrifying as Doubt was, we were sold on this particular school by not one but four babysitters who'd studied there. All smart, well-mannered, accomplished role models who assured us that Meryl Streep had been fired. They also all thought it would be a perfect fit for Elizabeth.

And for the past year it has been exactly that, a magnificent learning environment where our daughter has thrived academically and socially in a boy-free zone that allows us to sleep peacefully.

But I'd be lying if I said things didn't get off to a rocky start. Of course we knew there was a mandatory religion class, but hadn't seen it as a stumbling block. In that department we assumed we had a big leg up on our babysitters, three Jews and a Hindu.

We figured that as Episcopalians while we may not be Catholic, we were close enough: same pomp, no pope, less guilt. It surprises some to learn that Kelly and I actually met at church. The same church where we exchanged rings and vows in 2001 (before it was legal, the gay equivalent of jumping the broom), and where both of our children were baptized. We still attend regularly.

Not regularly enough, as we were soon to find out. Elizabeth's mind has always tended to wander during services, but we had no idea how far off-topic she was roaming until I reviewed her first religion homework assignment:

If you could interview one person in Scripture, who would it be and what three questions would you ask?

Elizabeth's answer:

I would interview Katniss Everdeen. I would ask her: 1) How do you think your sister is feeling right now? 2) What was the most difficult part in the Games for you, and why? and 3) How do you think Gale felt when you kissed Peeta on live TV?

For those of you behind on your pop culture -- or your Bible -- Katniss Everdeen does not appear in Scripture. She appears in The Hunger Games.


"Um, Elizabeth? Could you come over here?"


"Honey, what do you think 'Scripture' means?"

"It's like... books."

"Well no, not just any book. It's kinda one book in particular. And it's not The Hunger Games."

"Oh, okay." She started off.

"Which means you're going to have to redo your homework."

"Are you kidding me? I worked hard on that."

"I know. There's a lot of thought in there. But Katniss Everdeen isn't in the Bible."

"Well, she should be."

(I agree wholeheartedly. Katniss Everdeen would rock the Bible. Picking off Goliath with an arrow to the eyeball. Flirting with Herod. Hobnobbing with Ruth. Hogtying Satan.)

"It's a Catholic school, honey, and you're new. You can slack off in music, but you don't want to flub religion."

"Fine. So who should I pick to interview?"

Given the heavy estrogen vibe at her school, I suggest that she pick a woman.

"Like who? Who are some women in the Bible?"

Dear Lord, has she not been paying any attention in church?

"Well, there are all kinds of amazing women in the Bible."

(If it were me, I'd go with Bathsheba. Delilah. Definitely Jezebel. One of the fun girls. But that's just me. And it's early in the year, so I suggest the safe choice.)

"Why don't you go with Mary? Mary's always a good bet."

"Who's Mary?"

Who is Mary? Even Kim Jong-un knows this. My head is hanging in Episcopalian shame. The four of us were all in the Christmas pageant when her brother played Baby Jesus. Had she daydreamed through the entire thing?

Apparently so. "So there's really a Mary in the Bible? Like Mary Tyler Moore?"

Pausing for a moment. In Elizabeth's defense, at our house "Mary" has always been shorthand for Mary Richards. For years we've watched old episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show before bed at night. Our son knew Lou Grant before he knew his colors. Still it's no excuse, I think, as I picture Elizabeth being booted from seventh grade before September's over. Not for having two dads but for involuntary atheism.

"No, honey. Mary. The mother of Jesus. The Virgin Mary. How can you not know this? I'd understand if you were one of the Jewish girls. They get a pass until October. But you've been baptized. Did your brain not absorb any holy water?"


"Wait a minute," she says. "Back up."

Finally, I imagine, it's coming to her. I am wrong.

"You're telling me there's actually someone in the Bible called the virgin Mary? That's just rude."

"No, honey, it's kind of the whole point. That's why Mary is, like, the megastar of the Catholic Church. She was a virgin... and YET. She gave birth."

"I'm twelve, Dad. That's not how it works."

"Well, they're saying that it did. That this one time it did. It was a miracle. That's why they still talk about her today. That's why there are statues of her all over your school."

In the back of my head I can hear my mother's voice, teleconferencing from her home in the Deep South: "How can you be surprised she doesn't know this? You live in California."

Elizabeth: "So where are these statues?"

"They're everywhere, hon. That huge statue in the main stairwell? At least three on the grounds. The woman in the long robes, usually with a small child, looking way too calm to be raising a toddler. Like any other mom that calm would have to be jacked up on Xanax? That's Mary."

"No. I'm pretty sure those are Greek goddesses."

"They're not Greek goddesses. Why would you even think that?"

"Because we're studying mythology this trimester?"

"Those are Mary. Rule of thumb. If it's Catholic property and a woman and a statue it's always Mary. From that movie we watch every Christmas, the one you like, with the beards and the sand and the star and the donkeys and the teenage pregnancy and the birth of Christ. We own it on DVD."

"Wait a minute. That one with the girl from Whale Rider?"

"Yes. The Nativity Story."

"That's Mary?"


"Oh she's cute. I like her. Let's do her."


"But wasn't she Jewish?"

* * * * *


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