When Chatham author Karen Lewis Jackson walked into a nonfiction workshop at a writer's conference in Allentown, Pa. last year, she did not expect it would lead her to eventually get an essay published in one of the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books.
Yet that's exactly what happened.
Jackson followed the instructor of the nonfiction workshop to another lecture on writing specifically for the "Chicken Soup" series. After the instructor finished her presentation, Jackson said, "she said, 'There's one coming out, it's about the power of positive thinking. Does anyone have any story ideas?'"
Jackson, who served as the president of Chatham High School's Parent Teacher Organization from 2010 to 2012, had the perfect story.
"It's the story of my daughter. She's dyslexic, and she never used to win school awards. You never saw a kid who worked harder, but every time there was an awards ceremony she would come home heartbroken," Jackson said.
Yet every year at Chatham High's annual awards ceremony, Tori Jackson sat in the auditorium and cheered for her classmates as they won the awards she coveted.
"Senior year comes around, and she said, 'I'm not going, I'm not going. It's always the most horrible experience every year. I'm not going.'"
What Tori didn't know—but Karen did—was that she had won an award that year: the Eleanor Shipler English Award.
"She won an English award—an English award! My dyslexic daughter, who worked her butt off through all these difficult programs so she could read and write at grade level," Jackson exclaimed.
Jackson convinced her daughter to attend the ceremony under the guise of supporting a friend, who was to win a scholarship. The night of the ceremony, she snuck into the Chatham High auditorium early so Tori wouldn't see her.
"Eight hundred people in that auditorium, and where do you think she sits? Right in front of me!" Jackson said, laughing at the memory. "I thought the game was up, but she just turned and said to me, 'Oh, it's so nice of you to come and support Jessie!"
When Tori's name was called, she turned around and looked at her mother. "She couldn't believe it. She turned around and asked, 'Did you know?'" Jackson said.
The instructor encouraged Jackson to submit the story to "Chicken Soup," which, after checking with Tori, she did. It was accepted in August, and will be included in the upcoming collection entitled, "Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive: 101 Inspirational Stories about Changing Your Life through Positive Thinking."
Jackson shared part of the story with Chatham Patch that she didn't include in the draft she submitted to "Chicken Soup." "I wrote to the Shipler family to say thank you," she said. "The guy wrote me back. He said they've been giving the award for 21 years and they get lots of letters from students, but this was the first letter they'd ever got from a parent."
Eleanor K. Shipler was an English teacher in Chatham. She died in 1991. Her son wrote to Jackson that the award was never meant to go to the student with the highest grades or the most honors. "They wanted this award to be different. they wanted it to be for a kid who really worked hard and never gave up, and that was Tori," Jackson said.
Jackson knows that some people, in Chatham and throughout the country, find it difficult to speak openly about the challenges and problems they face. She simply isn't one of them.
"Because it's been front-and-center in our lives since Tori was in kindergarten, [my kids] are used to, for better or for worse, me talking about it constantly," she said.
Instead of making them ashamed, Jackson said her openness about the learning disabilities in her family "saved us, because it got us help. Me talking about it constantly helped us find support groups, helped us find programs, helped me find books, helped me then to be able to help other people."
Tori caught on, and now, Jackson said proudly, she is "unafraid to advocate for herself. She says it. She asks for the help she needs, and she's been very successful."
This is one of Jackson's first array into nonfiction. She edited a self-published cookbook written by her uncle George Lewis in 2009. she said the book is more of a memoir of her family's immigration from Lebanon and settling in central New York in the early 1900s, "with some recipes mixed in."
She has previously written fiction pieces in small magazines, and soon will publish a piece with The Writer's Circle.
Jackson, her husband Steve, Tori and their oldest son Mark are all alumni of Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. Montana, the youngest of the Jackson clan, is in the U.S. Marines.
"Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive: 101 Inspirational Stories about Changing Your Life through Positive Thinking." will be released online and in stores on Oct. 23, and is available for preorder on Amazon.