Journey to the Juniorate

My parents drank a lot, had many talents and much intelligence, and not much self possession. My father was I am fairly sure a manic-depressive who stayed away from the deep end, for the most part, by self-medicating with alcohol. My mother used alcohol to deal with anxiety, something which she overcame in her old age, thank God. My father -- a chain smoker -- never reached old age, dying at 65 of lung cancer.

The home which they tried to make for my brother and myself was a study in chaos. I never knew as I walked home from school what would be happening there. Would they be drunk and fighting? Would they be sober? Would one be drunk and the other pouting? When would dinner be served? What reasonable or insane demands, if any, would be heaped on me upon entering the house?

One of my shelters from the madness was reading. If I was at home and my parents became insufferable, I would retreat to the room I shared with my brother and read. Fortunately my parents had supplied us with many books, which included a nice edition of Aesop's Fables, a Modern Library set, and a Compton's Encyclopedia. In addition to giving us books, my parents also gave us good example as regards the use of books. My mother loved to read. My father was a also reader and would often quote Shakespeare at length. (He had been a professional stage actor in his youth.)

As a grade-school student I was indifferent to formal schooling and zealous in self-teaching. By the time I was 11, I had begun to read the philosophy sections in the Modern Library books, as well as the novels in those volumes. I also read synopses of many novels in the Classic Comics series. I regularly read material in the encyclopedia on technical subjects. Beginning in my seventh year, my father had spent many hours with my brother and me teaching us how to use an encyclopedia. I also spent a lot of time in the local public library. Aesop's fables were my drug of choice for dealing with the anxiety and depression I felt when my parents were fighting.

I was a disruptive personality, often in fist fights and outrageously misbehaved at the Catholic grade school which I attended. I was completely indifferent to class work and almost never did homework. I often fell asleep in class. On the other hand, I was also the best speller in my class and always got the highest scores in the diocecesan reading tests. (Every year, the bishop's office would send out reading tests to the parish grade schools.) I may have been the most enthusiastic reader in the school.

My indifference to school work changed on my first day in high school. I did very well on the diocesan version of the SAT test for entrance to the Catholic high schools in the DC area. I got invitations to attend all the schools in the area, except for Saint Anselm's Abbey School. I chose Saint John's College, which was a military high school of the Brothers of the Christian Schools.

I arrived one cold September morning in 1956 on the Saint John's campus, glad to be wearing a military uniform of heavy gabardine. My father -- a Coast Guard veteran of World War II -- had helped me get the uniform right, having shown me how to get shoe leather and brass gimcracks to shine, along with other details of smart military dress.

I immediately began watching the Brothers in their interactions with the students and with each other. One thing which became clear to me as I watched was that the Brothers would not tolerate the disruptive behaviors which had been my custom with the nuns of my grade school. I also got the feeling that the Brothers would be enormously supportive of serious scholarship, something for which I had been hungering for a long time, although without being aware of the fact.

Within a few weeks I had begun to read novels and poetry under the guidance of our English teacher, Brother Francis Brendan. We became friends and spent a lot of time after classes walking the campus grounds and talking about literature and philosophy and, of course, religion and about me and my past and what I wanted to do in the future.

Brother Georgius Edward was my home-room teacher and religion teacher, as well as my Latin teacher. Much of what we covered in the religion classes was moral philosophy and what amounted to a course in the basics of formal logic and careful analysis. I took to Latin like a duck to water and by the end of the year could read Jason and the Argonauts without difficulty.

By my seventh year of grade school, I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. I had quit smoking by the time I got to Saint John's and to deal with the stress of serious study began playing basketball for an hour or so every day. Finally I joined the school track team, which brought me into more contact with the Brothers. No doubt my parents' feelings as they viewed this sudden change in me were a mix of joy and amazement. I think they might have also felt a kind of terror. Who was this kid? It couldn't be Tommy the Brat, terror of Saint Jerome's elementary school.

I began to see the Brothers as an environment where I would have support for a quiet, orderly life devoted to scholarship and sports. I had begun also to become more serious about the Catholic religion and started to attend mass regularly and to abide more or less rigorously to the Ten Commandments and to the other practices expected of a good Catholic.

I decided within about six months of my arrival at Saint John's to become a Christian Brother. Accordingly, one afternoon I sought out Brother Edward and told him of my interest. On the following Saturday afternoon I was in a car with him on our way to a place called Ammendale. It was in Beltsville, Maryland, about twenty miles north of Washington, DC. It was home to the Novitiate, Junior Novitiate, and retirement home of the Baltimore Province of the Christian Brothers. (Every religious order of the Catholic Church has a Novitiate, which is a kind of boot camp for those desiring membership in the order.) Brother Edward and I spent the afternoon and early evening there, having lunch and dinner with the students and faculty of the Juniorate and chatting with people at the Juniorate and with friends of Brother Edward in the Novitiate and retirement home. Brother Edward took me on a tour of the Juniorate building and then walked with me around the extensive and beautiful grounds of Ammendale.

After the end of my freshman year at Saint John's, on June 15 of 1958, Brother Edward came to my parents home in University Park to take me to Ammendale. For some reason, my image of my arrival there is standing alone on the playing field next to the community house. What in fact happened was that Brother Edward took me to the office of Brother Florentian Luke, who was the director of the Juniorate. After the three of us had chatted for a while, Brother Edward left us, and Brother Luke took me to a desk in the Common Room of the house and had me take from my suitcase the things which belonged there. He then led me to one end of the room where stood a speaker's dais. We stood there chatting until a bell sounded. Brother Luke then stopped speaking, and students began entering the room and going to their desks. When all of the students had arrived, Brother Luke began to speak.

"Boys, I would like to introduce someone new. His name is Tom Arnall. He comes from Saint John's. His sponsor tells me he's a good basketball player and long distance runner and quite a scholar."

Then Brother Luke turned to me and, with an Irish smile beaming on his face, said simply, "Welcome, Thomas."