You Old Gom

By Donald Costello ‘50

The Brothers of the Christian Schools had been teaching just about 100 years in New York City when I entered La Salle Academy on Second Street and Second Avenue in September 1947. That’s a long time ago now.

I was not a Brothers’ Boy from grade school, having attended P.S. 53. I did well there, the only goy in an all Jewish class.

The Brothers have changed in the last seventy years. Let me tell you a bit of what they were like back then.

The Brothers were Catholic school teachers and were what was called “religious.” They were not priests… as I said, they were religious. The Brothers I knew had come to their vocation at the time of the depression and found the joy of living for Christ by teaching His children. They mostly came out of schools where the Brothers taught them from early grades.

In the New York Province, when they decided to join and passed the admittance requirements, they took their several years of religious and beginning teachers training at Barrytown in Duchess County, just north of Poughkeepsie, New York. They mostly went on to get advanced degrees from Catholic universities around the United States. They took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. I should take time to explain what these vows meant and maybe what vows mean themselves but I’ll leave that to an appendix. This is in fact a story about these Brothers, highlighting where this disappearing species of Catholic teacher came from.

The education at La Salle Academy was classical but supposedly not as classical as the Jesuit schools in the region. There were other differences. At the Jesuit schools they were supposedly more classical, as they also taught their students Greek. Students at a Jesuit school had to wear a suit coat, shirt and tie. Students at La Salle were only required to wear a shirt and tie, and jeans were permitted. Saint John Baptist de La Salle founded the Order in France and the Order was committed to teaching the poor. They have served that population throughout the world since 1679.

The brothers ran many grammar schools and high schools throughout New York City with several hundred Brothers in profession in the city. Most of the high schools they taught at had La Salle in their name.

My La Salle campus was a simple five-story building with a basement that had the basketball court, gym and cafeteria. The first floor had the administrative offices with a glass partition that let you look down on the basketball court. The older Brothers could be seen in these windows silently cheering the Cardinals on during our very competitive basketball seasons. Just East of the school but on the same lot was a small early 18th Century cemetery while across the street on the South side of Second Street (sometimes called “La Salle Two Street”) was an equally ancient police headquarters where, throughout the day, the paddy wagon entered and left with a seemingly full load of criminals or drunks coming in and going out to other jails.

The Brothers lived in four of the five stories to the West of the school and connected to it. They had a chapel on the first floor and their rooms were spread throughout the other floors. It may not be literally correct to say the rooms were “cells,” but you would not be far from the truth if you saw the space and furniture allowed. While there were about five lay faculty teaching at La Salle in my day, most of the La Salle faculty were Brothers. The cost to run the school was not high. Remember the Brothers took the vow of poverty.

We were taught English, mathematics, science, history, religion and languages and the reading of books was insisted upon. You had to have at least four years of foreign language to graduate and take four years of religion, in which you studied the Baltimore Catechism in great detail. Some thought that was boring. I didn’t.

When I entered La Salle, the Brothers gave out report cards every week on Friday. These had to be signed and returned on Monday. Not only were grades given in every subject, but sick and late days were indicated as well.

One interesting part of our curriculum is that you had to take Library for four years. Brother Cajetan (His baptismal name was Aloysius Michael Rock) ran the library as well as holding (or perhaps ruling) the library class. While he was not the first Brother you ever met, for many of us he was the Brother you would never forget.

The requirements for entering each library class were not complicated but it was precise. You had to have a library book that you were reading, your library notebook, your brown scapular and your rosary beads. Brother demanded this quadrumvirate requirement. He expected not just the spirit of the law, but the letter of the law. He brought a cultural and professed belief in obedience to the law to his students. Some say it was the old Irish tradition. I saw none of that in my rather loose Irish relatives.

Though born in the United States (Beacon, New York), Brother had a bright Irish light in his eyes and a noticeable Irish Brogue. He was only about 5’5” and had a somewhat crippled right hand. His pinky was folded over and the fingertip permanently pointed into his palm. He used this hand as a surrogate loud speaker bringing the somewhat curled hand up to his mouth to shout out his marching orders.

His first command as soon as the bell rang for the period to begin was always, “OK, you old goms! Get down on your knees with your library kit lying in front of you, your shirt open so I can see the brown scapular and your rosary beads lying on top of your library book and the notebook.” No top Sargent could have done it better. Brother would then review his troops, going person by person through the line. In freshman year, there were always those who forgot something. As the year progressed, hardly anybody forgot anything insofar as Brother’s equipment list was concerned. I never knew any student to object to all this on grounds of abuse. In fact, I don’t ever remember that A-word being used.

As he came down the line, he would run into the first student who forgot his rosary and a roar would spread throughout the booklined library, “You old gom, take two,” whereupon Brother would take the kneeling boys head in his hands and give him two whacks between the ears, clapping his pinky crippled hand to the victim’s head in quick succession. Even with just two whacks, you often saw stars. If you had inadvertently forgot two of the four items required, you got four whacks in rapid fire succession and would only rise for further action with the aid of an unfallen comrade. We had not yet heard of library life in the Bowery as a “field hospital.” Not an approved method of stressing obedience in the 21st Century, but I never saw a serious study on its lack of effectiveness as a reading improvement program. I never knew any student who was physically injured by this treatment. I assume some mothers complained.

If you forgot more than two items, you would have skipped school or got out of school early because you were “sick” or claimed, somewhat in panic, that you were sure you would soon be sick any minute. There weren’t many masochists among the boroughs’ poor.

When the review of the troops was complete, we returned to library tables and Brother led us in a Hail Mary and a solemn “Let us remember we are in the holy presence of God,” followed by, “Live Jesus in our hearts…” to which we ALL responded “Forever!”

Modern educational theorists and weeping mothers would blanch at this teaching technique. However, my father thought otherwise. During my first week of school, he went to the administrative offices and asked if he could sign a paper that would relieve La Salle of any medical or legal responsibility resulting from these whacks. He would never be accused as being a liberal father, but he had a black belt in “spare the rod and spoil the child.” He was politely told, “that wouldn’t be necessary.”

Brother Cajetan then began the work of the period. You could often hear a pin drop, unless your ears were still ringing from forgetfulness. Brother would take out the list of cards for the books checked out for the class and announce, “Lad: A Dog,” turning the card over saying, “Where is that old gom, Terry Malloy?” Assuming Terry was there, he would answer, “Here I am, Brother Cajetan.” Brother then would ask him what page he was up to in the book. From that response, Brother would then say, “Read to us what you have written, Terry.”

Often at that time, when our Terry came to bat, he would have forgotten the enemy territory in which he was deeply entrenched, and proceed to invent two sentences about dogs that could apply to Rin Tin Tin or Lassie, but were not written down in his notebook and would have had either looking like a bull terrier.

With his kindly light brogue, Brother would respond with, “Terry, me boy-o, my ears are failing me… could you give that to me again?” The odds were slim that the shivering Terry would remember what he said the first time and often go on for three sentences about cats or the Yankees, at which time Brother would ask Terry to bring his notebook up and, confirming that there was nothing written there, ask Terry to have a seat on the side near the post-period firing line.

When the above sequence went well, Brother would be quick to respond, giving the required “atta boy-o,” encourage the student to finish the book and get on to the next “gom.”

As you might expect, near the end of class, those in the firing line position got a, “Take two, you old gom,” and we were off to battle the subways and the streets of New York as we all made our way home to different parts of the city.

Senior year at La Salle, Library was still a once a week required session and by this time, like it or not, we had all read and written about many books. The ritual was still the same and we were still “old goms.” One day near graduation, we were in the part of the period where Brother called out the name of the book and then shouted out, “Where are you, you old gom, Harry Watson?”

One of the gang had checked out the book Rerum novarum to a fake student whose name was signed, “YOU OLD GOM.” When Brother finished with shouting out “Rerum novarum,” he swiftly turned the card over simultaneously saying, “Where are you, You Old Gom, YOU OLD GOM!…YOU OLD GOM!”…all in a torrential rush of sound meant to show both surprise and displeasure. On our side of no man’s land, all the lights came on in the library, the world lit up, Brother’s face looked as if he was transfigured before us and we began the most uproarious continuous stream of laughter that I was ever to participate in my life. The laughter was so deep that many, if not most, could not breathe and were grasping their throat and chest in hopes of providing self-administered first aid.

We all were rolling on the floor; Brother was jumping up and down trying to shout something out of his mouth with his curled hand loudspeaker unable to function. The bell from Adano rang and we tumbled into the halls and out onto the avenue, grasping each other in the unfailing belief that no Brothers’ Boy ever experienced such joy. We had to stop to buy an egg cream at Sam’s and review that pre-Saturday Night Live performance that we would remember all our lives and go through at every homecoming event. On our numerous individual ways home, many other than just I broke out in laughter during our crowded subway ride home. In our minds’ eye, we thought of the “Old Gom” crier gingerly still hopping about the library.

Brother Cajetan’s fame did not end in the library at La Salle Academy. Brother was a denizen of the subways of New York. In the beginning he would ask Brother Superior for subway money as he made his way around the bowels of the city’s “nickel” transportation system. Soon, however, he knew all the subway operators and subway police and could be seen talking to them when there was a break in their long transit runs.

Brother was a Labor man and soon became a confidante of Mike Quill, an equally adroit handler of people, while head of the City Transportation Union.

At negotiations, it was not unheard of to see a short older gentleman in a black suit with a roman-like collar, a curled hand up to his mouth undoubtedly referring to some “old gom” who forgot his brown scapular, among the negotiators.

If you were inclined to view Communism with an open mind, Brother disabused you of that quickly. No one at the time named Joseph Stalin as a world class criminal compared to that piker criminal Hitler, but Brother Cajetan did. It took thirty more years before Russia and Communism was indeed declared as the “Evil Empire.” We Brothers’ Boys did not have to get an advanced degree in Political Science to see that reality, as Brother Cajetan had taught us well.

There are far fewer Christian Bothers left in the New York province, but there are still many Christian Brothers schools in the city and throughout the world. It is no longer popular for the “me” or the “X” generation men to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Those heroes are mostly dead and hopefully resurrected.

As for me, thinking back on those events seventy years ago, I know that whatever social, political, literary, mathematical, historical, Catholic, and pedagogical convictions I have can be traced back to a loyal band of Lasallian Brothers. These men’s men taught a rigorous, demanding and solid education that was not then found in the secular domain of New York City schools.

If you asked me to compare my Lasallian education on the streets of the Bowery with my Jesuit friends at flower-stained richer campuses, I am afraid I would say that the Jebbie boys came up short. They were too classical. They did not know what it meant to be poor.

When I die, I have directed that my obituary’s first line be “He was a Brothers’ Boy.”

Every Lasallian Christian Brother graduate in the world knows what a joy for education, learning and the faith, that grand group of men passed on and what a debt of gratitude the educational systems owe to a mode of education where graduates were able to be lifetime contributors to the society in which they lived.

Every graduate I knew read books, could do Algebra, knew some French and Latin, and could answer questions about Catholic doctrine with his memorized Baltimore Catechism response. Those who I have met with over the years had a healthy but perhaps humble view of themselves.

Not so shabby.

Copyright 2002 through 2020 by Donald F. Costello

Permission to reprint can be obtained by writing [email protected]