The Great American School Experience: Hide In The Closet, Stay Quiet and Hope Not To Die

They were still bagging up bodies at Stoneman Douglas High School when my 9 year old daughter told me her plan.

“We would hide in the closet.”

“Really? That’s all?”

“Yes, teacher told us that if there is an intruder we are to hide in the closet and stay quiet.”

I didn’t tell her that that plan wouldn’t work. I didn’t tell her if an intruder powered into her school, the first place they would look would be in the closets. No matter how quiet she was.

I also didn’t tell her that, intruder, is too advanced of a word for a 4th grader.

Intruder is a 7th grade word saved for learning about Cesar, the Roman Empire and barbarian migration.

As a parent and a teacher myself, I go to work scared now.

Today, in America, students and teachers pack their lunches, zip their school bags, go to school and die. They’re shot stepping off the bus, eating their Peanut Butter & Jelly, twirling their locker dial, and hiding quietly in closets like they were told.

In April of 1999, when I was 19, I sat in my Pennsylvania living room, watching students sprint out the double-doors of Columbine High School, across the green Colorado grass as police officers stood behind trees with leveled shotguns.

I, like most of America, was naive then. We believed that the massacre at Columbine High School was an isolated incident. An aberration. Two angry boys who slipped through the metaphorical cracks and found an armory of guns.

We said prayers, held hands and vigils and went back to school shaken but confident a tragedy like Columbine would never happen again.

It couldn’t. This was America.

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

On Tuesday morning a student entered my classroom and announced there was another school shooting–the 17th school shooting in the first 11 weeks of 2018.

“Mr. Armstrong, did you know America now averages 1.5 school shooting a week?”

The closet in my daughter’s classroom is a long, narrow closet in the back of the room where the students hang their coats on little hooks and place their lunch bags on wooden shelves.

The closet has two doorways framed in white yet both are without doors. There’s no furniture inside the closets to hide behind. No bulletproof vests hanging from those little hooks. No trapdoors that drop the fourth graders into an underground tunnel system that mazes through the earth and branches into lite hallways that leads each child safely back to their bedrooms, leaving the booted intruder locked and loaded in an empty closet.

“Can you believe that Mr. Armstrong? Another school shooting.”

My daughter’s name is Haley. Cindy and I picked out the name months before she was born.  There was no debating. No coin flips. Our daughter would be forever Haley. And that was that.

Cindy was in labor with Haley for 16 hours. At one point the doctor peeked over Cindy’s knees and remarked how she refuses come out, “as if she’s hiding.”

As if, even before she was born, she was preparing for life in the American school system.

I cleared my throat, “Do you know where the shooting happened?”

“Somewhere in Maryland I think.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure. It was in Maryland.”

These are hard moments. Every time I learn about another school shooting I recoil and shake my head as if to say this is sad. This is so fucking sad.

What happened to the great American school experience that so many of us knew and enjoyed?

The one where you went to school and lived. The one where you pledge allegiance to a flag that you believed would protect you.

With all these dead children in the news, sometimes I feel guilty thinking about my daughter sitting at her desk, alive.

Right now she’s in math class–her favorite class. The teacher calls attention and spins and writes a multiplication problem on the board and challenges the class to solve it in under 30 seconds.

Haley flashes a smile. A smile that’s missing teeth but is unmistakably hers.

She tucks her blonde hair behind her ears and lets her pencil work the problem in her notebook.

The sun slants through the classroom windows on a fine American morning.

It’s spring outside. And a pair of eager yellow daffodils have pushed through the mulch outside her classroom and sway in the cool breeze.

And inside the classroom it’s warm and encouraging and my daughter is smiling. My daughter is alive and learning.

The way the great American school experience should be–always and forever.

Be well,


How to Cross a Threshold

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.–Marcus Aurelius

I saw my neurologist today.

After reviewing a recent MRI of my brain, he informed me that the deterioration that plagued my cerebellum appears to have stopped.

“That can happen?”

“Yes. In some cases, brain atrophy can stop.”

“Well, I guess that’s good news.”

He flashed a smile, leaned back in his chair and said, “That’s great news. Four years later…your brain is showing signs of stability.”

Like every previous visit, my neurologist put me thorough a series of tests.

Follow his finger with my eyes. Touch my nose, touch his finger. Open my mouth, stick out my tongue, cluck my tongue. Snap my fingers. Clack my heels on the floor. Stand up, sit down.

He opened the examination room door, turned, “you know the drill,” and I stood up and followed him out into the hallway.

I walked to the end of the hall, arms by my side, made a controlled turn–as if vying for my driver’s permit– and walked back to him.

“Your gait looks good. You’re walking more confidently then you have in years.”


We moved back into his office and sat down. He picked up a microphone that was corded to his computer and began dictating the results of my tests. Despite extensive cerebellum damage, the patient’s gait has shown improvement… . 

I commented how when I first meet him, four years ago, he had to scribble down test results and appointment notes by hand.

He smiled, “Yes, this will definitely stave off carpal tunnel for a few more years. But to be honest, I miss the old-fashion thrill of physical note-taking.  But…things change. Do you have any other questions?”

“I do. This may sound weird…I get a little uneasy around thresholds and doorways. You know, like I’m afraid to transition or something.  Is it normal for people with cerebellar damage to have trouble crossing thresholds?”

He leaned back into his seat and crossed his legs, “The brain is wonderful mystery. Even a healthy brain can find thresholds problematic. It’s something primitive. Like the fear the primitive man must have felt while standing barefoot on some rocky ledge, looking for someplace to go.  Crossing from room to room, from one plane to next has always troubled people. Evolution has ingrained it in our psyche. We’re simply afraid of transitions.”

Of course it wasn’t intentional, but he just conducted an unauthorized, in-office autopsy on my life.

“Do you have any advice on how to cross a threshold?”

“Crossing a threshold is often mental. The initial fear of just transitioning from one place to the next often prevents us from progression. But when you find the nerve to finally cross, you realize there was nothing to fear at all. ”

I stood up, shook his hand, said I was looking forward to seeing him in six months. He smiled, spun away, opened the door and disappeared.

I slipped on my coat and strode through the threshold, from the examination room into the hall and back into life.

A life born of thresholds, waiting patiently for us to simply brave up and cross.

Be well,


Nobody Cares and Other Truths I Learned During My Two Years of Writing

This week marks two years of showing up, sitting down and writing–everyday.

Some days I pumped out thousands of words. On others, I farted a few foul sentences and went about my day.

But such is the writing life.

When I first committed to writing, I held a secret position that green writers often hold– I wanted everyone to care about my writing as much as I did.

Whether it’s writing a book or losing 20 pounds we want people to acknowledge our efforts with a smile, a hug and the coveted big blue Facebook thumb.

When I launched my website I wanted people to stop what they were doing and care. I wanted people to read and be inspired. I wanted invitations to  guest speak at conferences and wanted strangers to approach me with a nervous smile, offer a compliment and ask for a picture.

Vanity? Absolutely.

But the novice is almost always too vain for their own good.

The novice falls in love with their own fiction. A love affair that, if it doesn’t end in divorce, will certainly pin them to a barstool or a therapist’s couch or sometimes both for quite a while.

Here’s What I’ve Learned

I’ve learned writers are architects.

We want people to slow down, take pictures, tell their friends and admire what we’ve built, brick by brick, word by word.

We want recognition for our ability to craft stories and mortar ideas that stretch into the sky and, if the timing is right, throw some cool shade across the world.

I’ve learned that every subject has already been written about by writers much more talented than myself.

I’ve learned that the novice would rather dream than work. The novice wants achieve maximum results for minimum effort.

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

There are three phases of the writer: novice, intermediate and professional.

I’m not a professional. Stephen King and Annie Lamont are professionals. They can offer insight on how to gain access to the heavily guarded compound where the professionals work.

However, I’ve graduated from novice to intermediate. My finely matted diploma marred with failures, doubt, fear and marginal successes proves I’m now qualified to reflect on my education.

If you’re thinking of pursuing a writer’s life or striding into the gym later today,  here’s the hard truth– nobody cares.

This is not to demean or passively-aggressively guilt you into caring.

The novice writer thinks everybody cares. The intermediate writer writes as if nobody cares.

The novice writes for attention. The intermediate writes for herself.

The novice writer writes when she’s inspired. The intermediate writes until she’s inspired.

Though she does appreciate them, the intermediate doesn’t write for blue thumbs. She likes praise but knows how dangerous it is to weave definitions from the threads of praise.

The intermediate enjoys the strain of the workout. A gym rat. A library mouse.

The intermediate pumps out 3,000 crappy words just to find 500 good words.

The intermediate is busy learning about truth and doesn’t realize that by learning her own truths she’s helping others discover their own.

The intermediate knows that even though writing is a vanity project– meaningful, enduring writing is always about the reader and always laced humility, sincerity and vulnerability.

She knows that other writers are scratching out posts, articles and books faster than she can and she doesn’t care. When she was a novice she stewed with jealousy. She’s now genuinely happy for other people’s accomplishments, but remains focused on her own goals.

And the intermediate knows there are miles of untraveled truths that need visiting before she can even pull into the parking lot where the professionals work.

This post marks two years of writing everyday and publishing a piece at least once a week.

Tonight, I’ll celebrate with a cold beer and some Charles Dickens. And then, when the 14.9 ounces of self-adoration ends, I will quietly return to my computer write again–as if nobody cares.

Be well,


PS–Thank you to everyone who has made the journey with me over the years. Thank you to anyone who has shared my work, offered a line of support or gifted me a big blue Facebook thumb. Thank you for welcoming my writing into your life.

How to Save a Marriage

The following post is the final entry of the The February Project: Love and Marriage, a self-imposed month long writing project on love and marriage.

“After all the romance and celestial promises of the initial courtship, love becomes a lifetime of small moments that add up to make something enormous.” from Taking Notes: A Love Story

It was romantic as hell.

We were finally alone on a beach house front porch.

The sun was rolling away from us and the sky made grand commitments to the pinks and oranges that stroke only finest of summer evenings.

My wife sat across from me. I took her hand.

The kids were somewhere inside, doing God knows what.

It was quiet, just the two of us and the distant break of the Atlantic Ocean along the soft New Jersey sands.

I admitted I don’t say “I love you” enough. I told her she deserves to hear it more. Eight years of marriage, three children later and I promised that I would tell her I love her everyday, for the rest of our lives.

We held a look long enough to vaguely remember what life was like before children until one of them threw open the screen door and complained about something someone was doing  inside.

We both said we would be right there and the child waited, then stomped, turned, and disappeared. This was our vacation. Our moment. The rolling sea, the tender sky. There was no need to rush. It was a scene that unfurled on the silver screen of our imaginations when we 16 years old and first began to conjure up a life together.

Like any new resolution, I was all in– with energy and verve and boyish enthusiasm. I planned out how I would do it, slip it casually into a conversation or let her believe I had forgotten about my promise only to surprise her with an “I love you” as she was falling asleep.

And for a few weeks I was true to my promise.

But, at some point I missed a day. Not that I didn’t love my wife anymore, I just failed to think of someone other than myself.

And as promises go–failing to keep them one day, made it easier to forget about them the next.

Until one day my wife confronted me half joking, half serious, ” Why did I stop saying, I love you? Do you not love me anymore?”

I stuttered and stumbled.

I said I was sorry and promised, from here on out I would say, “I love you” everyday for the rest of our lives.

And so as I did for a more few days. And then, as promises go…

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

My parents are cruising into their 40th year of marriage.

I say cruising because they make marriage look effortless. Like a joyride. A Sunday afternoon cruise with the top down and the radio up.

The key to their marriage is a little ritual they’ve engaged in every evening, when one of them returns home from work.

After a long day, when they’re finally reunited, no matter the condition of the household, now matter the company sitting at the kitchen table– the first thing they do is kiss.

A moment to recognize each other. A moment that is just theirs. A moment to honor their relationship

It’s such an amazing moment, especially considering the anarchy of weekday nights when the kids squeal about the house, when dinner boils on the stove and the phone is ringing and work is emailing and there’s a mouse loose in the pantry and the bills spew across the kitchen table.

Life, and all of its obligations, demands so much attention that sometimes you forget you’re married.

Days pile on to days.

The chores and responsibilities mount.

There’s only enough time to breath and react and the thought of thinking about someone else is simply too much.

So marriage makes strangers out of us.

Our spouse becomes a coworker, one who we occasionally bump into at the copy machine or the coffee pot. Things get awkward. There’s a head nod, then a slight smile before you retreat to your own business.

How do we avoid such fate? Like you’re always commuting from one draining job to the next.

My parents proved it starts with simple, sincere acknowledgement. They did it, and continue to do it, with a kiss.

They proved that marriage only works when you’re willing to connect and invest your attention in the smallest of moments.

I tried saying, “I love you” to my wife everyday and failed. Failed to create a daily moment each was just ours.


Because it’s hard. Because it takes real endurance, real commitment to honor your marriage everyday. Because sometimes I take marriage for granted.

In the throes of life, when life is not romantic as hell, the health of a marriage hinges on those little, private moments that you create for one another. It’s in those moments where you reconnect, rediscover each other all over again.

40 years of marriage proves so.

Be well.