By Meagan Douches
In September 2013, Jason Armstrong had an overflowing plate.
The Robbinsville High School English teacher was coaching the school soccer team, finishing up a master’s in education administration with Lamar University, and his wife Cindy had just given birth to their third child. When he started experiencing dizziness and blurry vision one day on the soccer field, he had a feeling something was off.
After he visited several specialists and had an MRI taken of his brain, Armstrong received some bad news.
“He asked me, ‘How are you sitting here right now?’ and I told him that I didn’t understand the question,” Armstrong said. “Then he explained, ‘If I’m looking at your MRI, you’re either dead or you’re in a hospital bed.’”
Armstrong’s MRI revealed signs of serious degeneration in the cerebellum of his brain. Though the test produced this worrisome result, the doctors didn’t know what was causing the condition. It took a year and a half of tests and doctors visits until a muscle biopsy in Spring 2015 revealed that Armstrong had sarcoidosis.
“I went from September of 2013 all the way to the spring of 2015 all without any answers,” Armstrong said. “When it was revealed that I had sarcoidosis, it was a shock to everyone.”
Sarcoidosis is a chronic auto-immune disease which causes bodily inflammation. Typically, it isn’t life-threatening.
While Armstrong’s fate was being determined through a series of medical tests, he says that the thing that got him through was writing.
“You hear that about your life and it puts things in perspective,” he said. “I got to a point where I was like, if I’m going to go out, I don’t want to go out with these stories in my head. So I just want to get everything out that I possibly can and that’s essentially what it was- a sort of therapy.”
Armstrong developed a website called writeonfighton.org to share his stories and to encourage others to use writing as a therapeutic and creative outlet. He also had the idea to establish a write-a-thon community outreach project to encourage others to find solace in writing.
Fortunately, Armstrong has been able to receive treatment for his sarcoidosis, which he says has changed his ability to function. Now, he’s back to teaching and has a newfound appreciation for his craft which he is eager to share with his students.
Last summer, he approached Robbinsville High School’s administration with his idea to host a write-a-thon. Everyone was in agreement that the event would be beneficial for students and the community alike. It was held for two hours at Robbinsville High Oct. 23.
Armstrong says that the goal of the write-a-thon was to help students develop their writing style and voice.
“It’s giving young kids the opportunity to explore writing in a sort of non-threatening sense,” he said. “It feels like in high school everything you write gets criticized, and that’s not really what it’s about. The write-a-thon is about the power of storytelling and the power of voice, or even exploring and finding your own voice.”
As Armstrong was conceptualizing the details of the event, he knew he wanted to help support a good cause. He decided that the proceeds would benefit the high school’s Special Olympics members in their endeavor to create a bowling team.
For this year, Armstrong decided to open the event only to seniors and those involved in the school’s literary magazine. Fifteen students signed up to participate in the event, though Armstrong says that many more, including faculty and staff, were interested in contributing.
For many, it was Armstrong’s evident love of writing that encouraged them to get involved with the write-a-thon.
“I decided to participate in the write-a-thon because I could see the passion that Mr. Armstrong has for writing,” said Christopher Massi, a senior at RHS. “I think schools don’t focus enough on helping students develop their personal voice. The write-a-thon will provide me and my peers with the resources and time to work on our own writing style, while under the guidance of a teacher that truly loves writing.”
Others began to recognize the importance of developing their writing skills while working on their college application essays.
“The college application essay process was long and grueling for me,” said senior Hadley Flyge. “I was surprised with the difficulties I faced while trying to mold my original and what seemed like unexplainable thoughts to fit a template for the eyes of a college admissions officer. The struggle of writing my first creative style piece made me realize the potential of my writing after revision, and therefore has prompted me to write more often.”
Armstrong’s efforts turned out to be a success; the school was able to raise $1,300 to help kickstart its new Special Olympics Bowling Team.
The Special Olympics team members showed their appreciation by giving a brief presentation at the start of the write-a-thon. The four members presented photos of the group and shared what Special Olympics means to each of them personally.
Participants in the write-a-thon were encouraged to submit their work to a schoolwide writing contest by Nov. 30. The winner will be selected to complete a semester-long internship with local writer Nancy DePalma and their work will be featured in New Jersey Meetings & Events magazine.
Many students who participated in the write-a-thon were excited by the chance to write freely, without a prompt or graded assignment to guide their work.
“When I heard about the write-a-thon, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of getting not only the opportunity to write, but the opportunity to write without instruction,” said senior Kylie Renner. “Writing is a crucial way to keep our imaginative minds rolling. I think it’s great that we are finally being given the chance to do so without boundaries.”
Armstrong also took advantage of the time during the write-a-thon and worked on some of his own stories, many of which follow his journey to resolve his medical issues.
Throughout Armstrong’s long road to a diagnosis, the doctors debated over different diseases and cancers that Armstrong could have. He says that the doctors initially believed he might have ALS, Parkinson’s disease or Multiple Sclerosis. When those didn’t check out, they thought it was Huntington’s disease, then they ultimately determined it must be cerebellar ataxia. The test results continually came back negative.
“When Jay was struggling to find out a diagnosis, it was really tough on him,” said Cindy, Armstrong’s wife. “Through his stories he allowed us to experience what he has experienced. It was a time of great confusion and fear, for all of us, but Jay found solace though words and writing down his pain.”
“I couldn’t control the diseases, but I could control the story,” Armstrong said. “I could control the words, and I guess that’s sort of powerful in a sense.”