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Turning Back the Clock: A Gold Star Approach to Daily Habits

By Eric Witchey

In my kindergarten, Mrs. Lingo’s Happy Time Kindergarten in Shelby, Ohio, every student had a cardboard cutout soldier about eight inches tall. Tacked to a cork strip above the blackboard, the soldiers seemed to march around the room, each wearing the name of their respective child. The worst fate every student could imagine was having their soldier “taken down.” Behavior unbecoming resulted in this horror. However, a kindness, a cleverness, a moment of creativity, or a clear demonstration of intelligence would win us a gold star, licked and affixed to our soldiers.

Some students, like my childhood neighbor Jean Ann Lorentz, had soldiers covered in gold stars. They glistened in the fluorescent lights. Others, like me, had a soldier with only a smattering of stars, each of which had been hard won and required me to sit through a lecture on living up to my potential.

Oh, how I wanted more stars. I wanted them with all my heart and all my body, but it was not to be. We didn’t know what ADHD, OCD, and Dysthymia were back then, but I knew envy, desire, hope, and ambition. I knew that I wanted those gold stars and that only the thin barrier of my behavior in a moment separated me from them.

Alas, it was not to be.

Fifty-odd years later, I have many metaphoric gold stars affixed to the soldier of my life. I also have some perspective on how to get them, and of late I have been fascinated by the connection between what was important to me as a child and what is easy for me as an aging adult.

As a child, walking in the woods and fields brought me bliss and peace. Now, my desire to seek relief from the stresses of living often takes me to the woods and fields. Reading as a child opened magical doors and gave me safety and joy exploring worlds, and it does no less now. The Scholastic Book contests, with their long, meandering roads of incremental marks on a classroom wall were a place where I shone. I easily filled in step after step on the road to reading success. Those classroom moments replaced my star envy with pride in accomplishment for something my need for excitement combined with my OCD would have given me anyway.

Today, I have come to the conclusion that those earliest memories, those moments burned into the heart and mind by emotions of desire, peace, and pride, are often at the core of all the layers of experience since. Anything I do that touches on those early life elements has a much greater chance of success.

A couple years ago, a YouTuber I follow launched a Kickstarter campaign. Simone Giertz, the Queen of Shitty Robots, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In the process of treatment, which included brain surgery, she took up meditation to manage her fear and anxiety. I cannot imagine what she went through, but I was struck by her need to give herself a gold star for every day she meditated. I was also impressed that she put her maker skills to work creating a tactile and visual feedback system to track her progress. She built a box that has a golden light to turn on for every day she meditated. She recorded her progress for a year and only missed two days.

All those orderly columns of gold stars! All those Scholastic Book Boxes colored in! So pretty! So . . .

MUST HAVE!

It triggered my OCD and my deeply seated gold star envy. I already meditate, but I could use it for other stuff. It’s better than the spreadsheet I use—I mean, GOLD STARS! Okay, I can keep the spreadsheet and have GOLD STARS! Let’s not get too crazy.

I contributed. When the boxes were productized, I’d get one!

Problems on top of problems kept the boxes in development for a long time, but mine finally arrived one hot August day. Who could have known that all the frustrating delays would bring the box to me in the middle of a pandemic, a political crisis, and wildfires that surrounded my house in smoke and threatened the homes of friends?

My anxiety was high. My fear and doubt were high. My productivity as a writer, reader, and teacher were threatened. Depression rode me like a jockey in the Derby.

And my box arrived!

A lifetime of living in my skin told me to step back and think carefully about what I wanted to track.

Meditation? No. Got that covered.

Reading? No. Can’t stop anyway.

Writing page count? Maybe, but not really an issue.

What are the things, I wondered, that I want most and are hardest for me to achieve?

The things I want to do every day but nstead of doing them every day, I binge. I push hard for two or three days, then I crash. Sure, I achieve a result, but I’d rather develop a comfortable habit of starting those activities every day—just starting. I can still binge. There’s no cap on what I do, but I crave the feeling that, like Jean Ann Lorentz, I can choose to be consistent from day to day to day.

I want my soldier filled with gold stars.

Eventually, I decided that every day I started to exercise and started to write, I’d get a gold star. I made the rule that I had to do both for at least five minutes, else no star.

I know that sounds trivial to some people, but it is not trivial for me. Five days in a row of ten hours a day? No problem. Then, two weeks off, then a day or two of four hours… Yup, that I can do, but that means no stars for two weeks. It also means my soldier would likely be taken down for a couple days during that two weeks.

Five minutes of two activities I want to make a habit every day of my life is doable, I decided.

So, I began on August 24th. So far, I have not missed a single day. My soldier is filling with stars!

Looking back, I see in this and many other successful behaviors in my life, that the more the nature of, and behavior around, an activity in my adult life matches a desire, joy, or habit of my earliest memories, the more likely I am to succeed.

Jean Ann, my old friend, if you’re out there, my soldier is finally marching in synch. I got me some gold stars!
Originally published in 2020 as “Old Hopes, Gold Stars, and Daily Lights” on Shadow Spinners.


About Eric Witchey

Eric Witchey has sold stories under several names and in 12 genres. His tales have been translated into multiple languages, and his credits include over 170 stories, including 5 novels and two collections.

Eric has penned dozens of writing-related articles and essays and taught more than 200 conference seminars, as well as at universities and community colleges.

His work has received recognition from New Century Writers, Writers of the Future, Writer’s Digest, Independent Publisher Book Awards, International Book Awards, The Eric Hoffer Prose Award Program, Short Story America, the Irish Aeon Awards, and other organizations.

His how-to articles have appeared in The Writer Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and other print and online magazines.