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.

Celebrating Victory with the Living (and the Dead)

On Superbowl morning I went to Forest Hills Cemertary wearing my Eagles jersey.

It’s February in Philadelphia and it’s cold and raining and my son is standing by my side and we’re looking down at the plaque marking the birth and death of my grandparents. Mike and Doreen.

I tell them about how the Eagles are playing in the Superbowl tonight. How they’re underdogs, been underdogs throughout the playoffs. A real Philadelphia story.

Never having performed the earthly art of speaking to the dead, my son stares at me and then quietly drifts towards the car.

I tell my grandparents I’m a bundle of emotions. Excited, nervous.

I tell them I think we’re finally going to win.

I tell them I’ll be thinking about them tonight.

I can feel Chase watching me. His nose pressed up against the car window. His 7 year old mind convincing itself that his father is a little stranger, a little more mysterious then previously thought.

An hour earlier, before the rain, I was staring out my kitchen window into the calm, gray morning and listening to sports talk radio.

Mary from Doylestown said she was going to wear her brother’s Eagle’s jersey tonight. She said her brother taught her the Eagles fight song and how after high school he enlisted in the Army and how on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan was killed by a suicide bomber.

Bill from Broomall said he’ll be watching tonight’s game from his recliner and with his father’s urn propped beside him. Like he’s done all season.

Then two things happened before the Jim from Norristown could finish his story about going to his first Eagles game at Franklin Field in 1960 with his parents who are now both deceased:

One, I was on the verge of tears. Serious man-tears. And two, I had a sudden urge to visit my grandparents.

My grandparents were casual sports fans. They celebrated when Philadelphia celebrated.

My grandfather was a Philadelphia police officer and would tell me stories about being down on the Veterans Stadium field, working security during Eagles games. How after the game he would visit the locker and talk to the players. Which, when you’re a kid, is just about the coolest thing in the world  –much cooler then talking to wet cemetery grass.

Beyond that, I don’t remember any conversations with either of them about sports.

But that’s not the point.

My grandparents were fans of life. Fans of their children and grandchildren. They taught me the importance of togetherness, community, celebrations and traditions. And since sports is a freeway that connects people, on Superbowl Sunday, I wanted my grandparents to feel a part of the biggest game in Philadelphia sports history. To feel a part of the living story again.

Later that day the Eagles defeated the Patriots to capture the first Superbowl title in franchise history. A franchise founded in 1933.

When the clock settled on 0:00, I hugged my mom and dad. I hugged my brothers. I hugged my wife and children.

Later that night, when the celebration quieted, I thought about my grandparents.

And I’m sure Mary, Bill and Jim were all hugging the spirits of their loved ones late into the night as well.

As children, our parents told us not to stress over striking out or missing a shot. They told us not to take it so hard. They told us that it’s just a game.

And now, as parents, we pass down the same sentiments to our children.

Don’t take it so hard. Let it go. It’s just a game.

Yet I know it’s not just a game. And my son now knows it’s not just a game.

Because hours before the Superbowl he listened to me talk to the dead.

Because inside the earthly boundaries of the game, rests something ethereal that connects the living to the dead.

A magical spell of muscle and bone that coaxes the dead sit up and smile and celebrate the joy of sports, the joy of life with us once again.

Be well,


Here are some Superbowl and parade pictures:


“She doesn’t read your blog anymore.”: The Most Important Lesson I Learned in 2017

I can live for two months on a good compliment.— MARK TWAIN

When I was a kid my mom would hang my school art projects on the refrigerator door.

She would tussle my hair, look down lovingly at me and tell me how great my art was. How it brightened up the kitchen. How I was such a creative boy, destined for creative fame.

In fact, 32 years ago, mom had a picture I drew in kindergarten glazed onto a plate. To this day, she still eats off the plate.

Thanks to Ikea, my wife and I continue the parental tradition of displaying and praising our children’s school projects. We have a decorative steel-wire clothes lines near our kitchen table where we show off all the finger paintings and paper-mache’ Christmas trees.

Praise and affection should not be reserved for children. Adults need praise and affection too. They are fundamental human needs. They strengthen our self-esteem, they help to refine our self-worth.

The best-selling book The Carrot Principle examines a 10 year study revealing how boss-to-employee acknowledgement and praise were the two most important and persuasive factors regarding employee retention, production and satisfaction.

Good parents acknowledge and praise their children.

Good bosses acknowledge and praise their employees.

But what happens when someone acknowledges and praises the work of a hopeful writer?

Last year a colleague told me that her aunt was a big fan of my blog.

How her aunt looks forward to a new post every Friday. How my writing makes her laugh and cry and think better about her life.

I was flattered. Honored. Proud.

Someone, not my mom, was a fan of my work.

I was building an audience. Creating a buzz. My writing was going places. Like Mark Twain, I floated on that compliment for months.

A few weeks ago the same colleague told me that her aunt doesn’t read my blog anymore.

“What do you mean she doesn’t read my blog any more?”

“I mean, she doesn’t read your blog anymore.”

I smiled. Laughed it off. Said, “oh well” and went about my day.

But I was bruised. A once avid reader decided that my words were not a valuable use of her time.

I spent the following days in a bad place.

I was edgy. I didn’t want to read, write or teach. The kids were bringing home drawings of snowmen and gingerbread men they made in school and I didn’t care.

My work felt cheap. As if instead of hanging my work on the refrigerator, mom balled it up and threw it in the trash and told me to give up.

I felt sorry for myself, which is the dangerous first stroke in the messy art of self-sabotage.

I know my colleague’s aunt was not the first reader to stop reading but it was the first one I heard about which made it feel real.

I sulked and did the immature thing of equating one person to everyone.

Why am I sacrificing so much time writing things nobody was reading?

I thought about canceling the upcoming Write-a-thon. An event which I’m unapologetically proud of.

I doubted my abilities as a writer.

Why should anyone listen to me? What qualified me to offer my voice and writing knowledge?

I guess, in a weird way, I began feel like a real writer — questioning the value and necessity of my work.

Days later a different colleague gave me a Christmas card.

They told me how much they enjoyed reading my writing. How my words were making an impact on people.

Later that day I confirmed a date for the Write-a-thon (January 19, 2018!) and even later, I went home and began writing this post.

As 2017 unfurled, I had some nice successes. Received some nice recognition.

But it was in the cold, final week of 2017 that I began to understand the polarizing power acknowledgement and praise.

I learned that if I’m creating work just to hang it on the refrigerator I’m not a real artist. I’m just another glory whore in a world filled with glory whores.

I’m glad my colleague’s aunt isn’t reading my work anymore. Her dumping me was one of the best things to happen to me this year.

Writing is a contradictory experience.

Writing is more about the reader then the writer. Yet the fate of the relationship is solely the writer’s responsibility. The writer has to sacrifice and bleed and refuse compression for the relationship to work.

There were times in 2017 I didn’t bleed for you. Sometimes I winced. I wrote for clicks and likes and shares. I wrote easy. I was a glory whore.

In 2018 I resolve to do a better job writing for myself. I need to write hard. I need to bleed for me. Not for recognition. And not for you.

This is not to shut you out.

I need to be more selfish, more self-examining to engage you on a more honest, more visceral level.

In 2018 I promise to work on me so that we can work on us.

Together I hope we find better ways to appreciate our lives, to tell our stories so when the time is right–we may find our way back to each other.

Be well,


What my 7 year old son and a friend with a terminal illness said about happiness

I’d like to thank the Lexus “December to Remember” commercial for fueling my recent obsession with happiness.

You know the commercial: On a perfect snow sparked morning a well groomed man finds a new Lexus topped with a big red bow trophied in his sprawling driveway. The man smiles then hugs and kisses the hood of his new toy as his tall, attractive wife and their beautiful blue-eyed children stand nearby and smile and dote and radiate with plastic happiness as a voice tells you how easy and affordable it is for you to own a sleek, well-equipped Lexus.

The message is simple and clear — If you buy or lease a Lexus this holiday season you can buy or lease happiness.

Now that’s a good looking family…but it’s an even better looking Santa Claus!

The commercial then gives way to the football game my 7 year old son and I are watching. We’re curled together on the couch, sharing a blanket. It’s a rare scene, especially for December. My son, the Energizer Bunny, is almost always moving, always playing. And with the promise of Christmas so close, his energy seems even more boundless. But at this moment, he is still, as if someone removed his batteries, and I know this might just be my only time to ask him.

“Hey Chase can I ask you something?”

The quarterback drops back to pass. Chase delays his response long enough where I think he’s ignoring me. The quarterback completes a 12 yard pass to a receiver who’s shoved out of bounds by a streaking defender. First down.

The teams huddle and the referee sets the football at the line of scrimmage and without unlocking his eyes from the television looking Chase says, “Okay.”

A little surprised he was even listening, I nod and smile and ask, “What makes you happy?”

The quarterback drops back to pass again and Chase turns and looks thoughtfully at me, as thoughtfully as a 7 year old can look, smiles and says “ I guess…spending time with you and mom.”


“Yeah like when we all went to the movies last week. That was fun.”

He smiles.

I smile.


I didn’t want to text my friend. She’s dying.

My friend Deb Dauer was diagnosed with ALS in September of 2013. Before her diagnosis, she was an elementary school teacher in the district where I teach and an early supporter of Write on Fight on. Now she’s chronicling her inspiring fight with ALS on her blog Not Gonna Be a Debbie Downer. 

Though my interactions with Deb have been mostly through email and Facebook, I feel a kinship with her. We are parents and teachers and writers who, for better or worse, wear our hearts on our sleeve.

I felt like an asshole bothering Deb with my pretentious existential crisis. I mean, she’s warring with one of the most hellacious diseases we’ve never cured. Clearly, she’s busy.

But the question lingered then gnawed. What would someone with a terminal illness say about happiness? 

It took me almost an hour editing and revising and second-guessing and ego-checking before I finally braved up and sent the following text…

“What makes you happy? Lately I’ve been obsessing over natural vs. plastic happiness and would value your sentiments. But please, no obligations. Be well.”

True to her awesome self, Deb responded with…

“What I’ve found that it is connections with other people that really make me happy. And in turn time and experiences with them.”

In the heart of the Lexus “December to Remember “ sales event Chase and Deb confirmed what I already knew, what most of us know — that relationships are the fruits of happiness. A 7 year old boy, a dying woman cemented such truth — we are fragile and finite but in relationships we find strength, we experience forever.

Why is such simplicity so hard to understand? Why do we foolishly think that one more material possession will sprout the happiness we so desperately desire?

And so if growing up is a just matter of perspective, it’s curious to think that we’ll spend so much pain, energy and money trying to realize what we knew all along.

Be well,


PS–Checkout this 6 minute feature on the Write-a-thon! I want to thank all my colleagues and students who made this awesome event possible.

You Can’t be Happy and Ungrateful at the Same Time: 50 Things from My Gratitude Journal

Happiness and gratitude are a package deal. You can’t be happy and ungrateful at the same time. Show gratitude and you’ll find happiness.

Dr. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, has spent his career researching the impact gratitude can have. Emmons stresses, “Gratitude is not merely a positive emotion; it also improves your health if cultivated. People must give up a “victim mentality” and overcome a sense of entitlement and deservedness.”

How often, in these hyper-speed times of ours, do we fail to slow down to appreciate moments and things that afford us happiness? How often do we feel discontented with our material possessions? How often to fail to give thanks for the gift of life?

In an attempt to grow my gratitude, to find new levels of happiness, I recently adopted the morning practice of writing down 3 things I’m grateful for. It’s nothing fancy. It’s just a pause every morning before the chaos of the ensuing day to acknowledge 3 things I’m grateful for. Some things are deeply personal and others are observatory. But all, in some way, have added to my happiness.

Here are 50 things from my gratitude journal:

1.The first sip of morning coffee.

2. A job.

3. Seeing my children smile on the first day of school.

4.That Paulo Coelho shared my review of his novel The Alchemist on his Twitter feed.

5.When old friends you haven’t talked to in awhile call.

6.That a healthy diet is relieving my chronic joint pain.

7. Inside jokes.

8.Talking sports with my dad.

9.Having a fair and honest work evaluation that provided meaningful feedback.

10.Sunday dinners with my parents and brothers.

11. My wife’s willingness to listen to my repetitive (and probably boring) work stories.

12.When former students return from college and visit.

13.Watching my parents teach my children how to play poker.

14. When strangers hold doors, smile and say things like, “Good morning” and “Have a good day.”

15. Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”.

16. Having people read and share my writing.

17. My parents making me get a job when I was 14.

18. Viktor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning for teaching me that real hope only arises when we find meaningfulness in our suffering.

20. Amazon Prime.

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
― Epicurus

21. Thank you notes.

22. The snooze button.

23. Listening to the staccato rhythms of my youngest son reading.

24. One of my students getting accepted into their dream college.

25. My son being voted Class President of the second grade.

26. Hot showers.

27. That my parents are still alive and have been married for almost 40 years.

28. Three day weekends.

29. The patter of my children’s rushing feet in the morning.

30. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien for teaching me about the power and humanity of storytelling.

31. Seeing my daughter score a goal in her soccer game.

32. That my wife supports me.

33. Having the financial ability to pay bills.

34. The ability to write and tell stories.

35. Mousetraps.

36. Seinfeld reruns.

37. The Philadelphia Eagles for currently exceeding expectations.

38. Listening to my children invent and tell their own jokes.

39. The freedom of choose how I respond to any given circumstance.

40. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey for making me consider ways to improve upon my relationship with myself and others.

41. The Tim Ferriss Show podcast for reminding me that asking questions is a pivotal practice for growth.

42. Urgent Care facilities that are open late on Saturday.

43. Sam Adams Octoberfest.

44. Having a wood burning stove.

45. Falling asleep on the couch.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

46. Classroom laughter.

47. Classroom silence.

48. Well-insulated travel mugs.

49. Christmas wishlists.

50. My health.

Thanksgiving week is a great time to express gratitude. However, I’ve learned that sustainable gratitude is work. Like anything else gratitude requires daily attention, daily maintenance. This holiday season I hope you find time to focus on daily gratitude. It’s proven to boost your mood, deepen your relationships and if not for anything else — make you smile just a little bit more.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Be well,