Michael Armstrong knows where he will be most of the weekend — inside the Columbus Civic Center.
The East Columbus Magnet Academy math teacher and coach plans to start this afternoon at the Northside High School graduation, and by the time Spencer High graduates Saturday night, he will have attended nine Muscogee County School District commencements. With cowbells.
There is a reason for his May madness.
“To me, graduation from high school signals the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood,” Armstrong said. “That is why they call it a commencement.”
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And there is a reason Armstrong will be there for all of them: Students he taught and coached five and six years ago will be earning their degrees. And when they left middle school, he promised them he would be there on their high school graduation day. While the bulk of his students will graduate from Spencer, Carver and Kendrick, he has former students walking at every public high school in the city.
The tradition started in 2006 with Reva Prescott Sarluca, a student Armstrong taught in the fourth grade at Benning Hills Elementary School.
When Sarluca graduated from Spencer in 2006, she was thinking about all the teachers who pushed her along the way. One of those was Mr. Armstrong.
“He and another teacher were very influential and they were heavy on my mind at that time,” Sarluca said. “So I invited him. I really wanted him to see all the work he had done with one kid really had paid off.”
Armstrong went and said he found that it was a way to get a better picture of lives that had gained focus.
“What I found I get from this is knowing that I helped somebody go from being a child to being an adult,” he said.
And, even though he teaches middle school students, Armstrong makes sure they are aware of the bigger picture. His room is full of college pennants, a constant reminder of what comes after high school.
“The more education you have, the better your earning potential,” said Armstrong, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “I want to remind them of that.”
What Sarluca found was a teacher who cared as much as he pushed.
“He was more relatable because everything he did in his classroom related to kids,” said Sarluca, who enlisted in the Navy after high school and is now preparing to attend Georgia State University. “An example that I remember was on Field Day. He volunteered to take the water cannon, and it was all of us against Mr. Armstrong. It is little things like that. We would play ‘Jeopardy’ in his class. It was a game, but it was his way of making sure we got it.”
Anthony Smith, a 2014 Spencer High graduate running track and pursuing an information technology degree at Columbus State University, says Armstrong is “bonus family.”
“He always goes the extra step,” Smith said. “Even when you leave middle school, you know he’s watching. And you know he wants the best for you. He’s the real deal.”
Smith is a sprinter, but he said Armstrong has always pushed for academic success along with the athletic accomplishments.
“He stresses that one day the athletics will end,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, the academics are the most important thing.”
Kendra Lee is a 2014 Shaw High School graduate, who like Smith took eighth-grade math from Armstrong. She will be a junior at CSU, where she is studying sociology. She also considers Armstrong family.
“He reminds me of your annoying uncle who always sees the good, even when you are doing terrible stuff,” Lee said. “In the eighth grade, I would leave class and run the halls, causing a ruckus. He would grab me and make me sit in his classroom until the bus came. He would just talk to me. You could tell he cared.”
That’s his job, said Armstrong, a Chicago native who has been teaching in the local school system for 20 years.
“It does take a village to raise kids,” Armstrong said. “And this is my role in that village. I not only can teach them math, I can offer advice and encouragement that helps them become an adult.”
Destiny Elliott will graduate from Carver Saturday afternoon, and she knows her former math teacher will be there.
“Coach Armstrong is a crunk teacher,” Destiny said. “He always taught from the book, but he did it with his own spin. His classes were so welcoming. It wasn’t boring and I always looked forward to going to class.”
Armstrong’s graduation tradition tells Destiny a couple of things about her former teacher, she said.
“First, it is just his personality, not only inside the classroom, but outside as well,” Destiny said. “Second, it is about support and celebration. He always supports us and this is a way to celebrate with us.”
Armstrong digs deep into pop culture to describe the feeling he gets during a graduation ceremony.
“You remember that old Shake ’n Bake commercial?” Armstrong asks. “The little kid at the end says, ‘And I helped.’ That’s exactly how I feel at that moment: ‘And I helped.’”
And to make sure the students know a teacher who helped along the way is there, Armstrong rings his cowbells. He follows the strict rules of decorum in place for Muscogee County graduations, waiting until the last graduate’s name is called before ringing the bells.
Two years ago when she graduated from Shaw, Lee said she was not excited. She wanted to get to the Civic Center and just get it done. That was until she heard the cowbells.
“He waited until they had called everybody’s name,” she remembered. “When I heard the cowbells, I started appreciating what I had accomplished and it felt really good. I didn’t even have to look up there. I knew it was Coach Armstrong and I knew he cared enough to be there.”
“I wait until all the names are called — I don’t want to get them thrown out — then I ring the cowbells,” Armstrong said. “I just want them to know that I was there.”
When she graduates from Carver on Saturday, Destiny will be listening for the racket when the last name is called.
“I will be listening for the cowbells and I will automatically know it is Mr. Armstrong,” she said. “When I was in the eighth grade, I didn’t know what the cowbells meant, but now I look at them as a celebration.”
Note: All graduations in the Muscogee County School District, except Catapult Academy, will be conducted in the Columbus Civic Center.
Today: Northside, 4:30 p.m.; Kendrick, 7 p.m.; Lighthouse Christian, 7 p.m.; Lighthouse Baptist Church; Glenwood, 8 p.m., Phenix City Amphitheater (Golden Acres Baptist Church in case of rain).
Friday: Early College, 4 p.m.; Columbus, 6 p.m.; Smiths Station, 8 p.m., football field (in case of rain, May 21, football field, 11 a.m.; in case of rain again, May 21, junior high auditorium, 11 a.m.); Shaw, 8:30 p.m.
Saturday: Hardaway, 9 a.m.; Harris County, 10 a.m., CSU’s Lumpkin Center; Jordan, 11:30 a.m.; Carver, 2 p.m.; Spencer, 4:30 p.m.; Brookstone, 8 p.m., quad (gym in case of rain).
Sunday: Calvary Christian, 3 p.m., CSU’s Lumpkin Center.
May 26: Grace Christian, 7 p.m., Grace Baptist Church auditorium; Russell County, 7 p.m., football field (gym in case of rain); Central, 7:30 p.m., Garrett-Harrison Stadium (school auditorium in case of rain).
May 27: Chattahoochee County, 7 p.m., football field (gym in case of rain); Hallie Turner, 7 p.m., Hilton Terrace Baptist Church.
June 9: Columbus Technical College, 7:30 p.m., Columbus Civic Center.
June 10: Troy-Phenix City, 7 p.m., Columbus Convention & Trade Center.