Gold Stars

“I sold it! I sold my article for kids,” I called into the bright morning sky from the balcony overlooking my backyard. “I am now a professional writer! And I can prove it,” I added, waving the publisher’s check with giddy abandon.

Three birds perched on the telephone line overhead flapped their wings in a sudden flurry. “Thank you. Thank you,” I joked and bowed from the waist. The ‘applause’ died down and my feathered friends rested at attention. “It’s all up from here,” I shouted, and off they flew, self-appointed messengers of my glad tidings.

I leaned against the railing and breathed in the scent of spring. It was a solemn moment—and a grateful one. This was the ‘gold star’ I had reached for, after leaving the tender care of Sister Mary Pius, fourth grade teacher at Our Lady of Charity Elementary School. I could still picture that sweet old nun—not much taller than the boys and girls in front of her—pinning my prize-winning story to the bulletin board in the back of the room one sunny April day. “This is a gold-star story,” she said aloud, as she licked the small glittery sticker and placed it above the title line for all to see.

After school that day she called me to her desk, and in a tone that sounded serious to my little-girl ears, she said, “Karen, you’re going to be a professional writer someday.”

Then her eyes sparkled like the star on my story. She leaned forward and a soft smile broke across her wrinkled face. She pointed to my story on the bulletin board. “That star is just the first of many to come.  Reach for those stars. Write the words God gives you.”

The whistle of the tea kettle brought me out of my reverie and I stepped back inside my house. I sat down with a cup of Mint Medley, my thoughts and memories, the letter of acceptance from the editor of Crusader Magazine, a copy of my ‘sold’ manuscript,  “A Trail of Tips for First-Time Campers,” and the check—for twelve dollars and fifty cents!  I didn’t know what was ahead but I couldn’t imagine anything topping the wonder I felt in that moment. “It’s all up from here,” I reminded myself.

What I didn’t know at the time, however, was that to go up requires a lot more than simply hitching your dream to a shooting star. Though it felt good to have my head in the clouds for a moment or two of celebration, I would soon discover that to earn the next gold star I would have to plant my feet firmly on the ground. Even to go underground for a time—to learn my craft, to unearth the thoughts and ideas that are worth writing about, to mine my soul for the words God has for me. Gold stars do not come easily. That’s why they’re special.

I sold twelve articles that first year. I also received enough rejection slips to wallpaper my old fourth grade classroom! It seemed to be a test of my resolve—and an opportunity to dig a little deeper. Would I give up or would I remain committed? Whenever the question arose in my mind I thought about Sister Mary Pius and my gold-star story.

I kept on writing, and the more I wrote the easier the words came and the more I had to say that was worthwhile. Sales to magazines led to children’s books and curriculum guides and scripts for educational films. One film, A Visit With Don Juan in Hell, even won a Certificate of Screening at the Chicago International Film Festival. I tried it all—public relations and advertising copy, poetry, and fiction.

And then came the day when I sold an article to Reader’s Digest for the princely sum of $3,000!  A big jump from the $12.50 that had thrust me into the family of professional writers.  Next, an award-winning book, Sally Ride and the New Astronauts—a best-seller at the time for publisher Franklin Watts. Later, my book When Spending Takes the Place of Feeling, was nominated for the Gold Medallion Award, and later still I received the distinguished Writer of the Year Award from the San Diego Christian Writers Guild and the 2002 Mount Hermon Special Recognition Award for 25 years of writing and teaching.

Day after day, year after year, I wrote and read, and wrote and prayed, and read and wrote and prayed some more. And sometimes I cried! Or threw a book against the wall or slumped to the floor in frustration. A finished book ready for the printer was pulled from the publisher’s catalogue at the last moment. CANCELLED! A series of early readers for children cut short of the four volumes planned. An information book for teens dropped because the editor left the company and her replacement had a different vision. Articles returned after so many months I had forgotten I’d submitted them!

Today, however, thirty-two years after my first sale and more than sixty years since I sat in Sister Mary Pius’ classroom, I continue to write—despite the rejections and the revisions—even despite the awards and the acclaim. For I have learned something important in all of this. I am a writer.  Sister Mary Pius said I would be. I believed her. I still do. When I feel scared or shaken, uncertain or unworthy, I sense her presence and hear her encouraging words dance across the cold dark night. “Reach for those stars. Write the words God gives you.”