Painting by Numbers and Other Hard Things

Sometime over Christmas break last year, I was sitting at my parents’ house with my younger brother as he searched Pinterest for Christmas gift ideas. As a girl who grew up in a house full of boys, the fact that my younger brother uses Pinterest to find craft ideas is a blessing not lost on me. He also, relatedly, gives great Christmas gifts.

He had decided he wanted to do this craft, and he planned to go and buy a paint by numbers kit to make it happen. I told him that would take WAY too long, that he should just go find an ugly but colorful picture at the thrift store. I think he ran out of time to make it happen in any form, but I pinned the craft anyway as a cute idea for some future date.

 

Last week, I read Glennon Melton’s Carry On, Warrior, and full-on fell in love with her and her faith and philosophy. She talked about her friend who had, “We can do hard things” written on the wall of her preschool class and I knew I needed it too.

In the school I work at, we’re required to post student objectives for each lesson we teach in student-friendly language. In my room, that means we have a “We Can” board that we read every day, with things on it like, “We can use food words. We can write three sentences to describe our favorite foods. We can read Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” That is a real day in the life of a third grade ESL class. Class starts and ends with reading the We Cans, to give students direction and time to reflect.

To be honest, I complain about the we cans. With my lowest readers, it feels like such a waste of valuable time to make them read what we’re about to do and at the end to find the time to ask them if we did all of it. But it helps to structure the class if they know what to expect, and they hold me accountable for meeting our objectives. They know what they are supposed to get done, and they expect me to lead them there.

So when I read “We can do hard things,” I couldn’t help but read it as a student objective- something to give them direction, something that I can hold them accountable to accomplish and that they can hold me accountable to lead them in. If I have “We can do hard things” written on the wall, we have to do hard things every day. Fortunately, I find myself doing hard things every day, and my sweet students know more of the hard in life than they probably should at their age.

 

I knew it would take forever to do the paint by numbers, but I went out and bought a kit anyway. Approximately two seconds into the kit, I realized it was going to take even longer than I could possibly have known, an embarrassingly long time, to finish this painting that I was just going to paint over in white.

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Please note how many TINY LINES had to be painted in this thing. That’s right. I did that.

 

It took more than a week of using most of my free time to paint this thing. During that week, one of my neighbors’ homes was broken into, and I spent a few nights at a friend’s house, just in case (don’t worry, mom and dad, I am safe and happy and no one is breaking into my apartment). When I came back, I painted and I prayed for a blessing on the apartment, for freedom from fear and for beauty in the chaos.

My hard thing that week was finding beauty in the hurt all around me, and so I painted one small section at a time and hoped it was enough. I can’t do hard things by myself, though, so friends invited me over and fed me and housed me and checked in on me, and we did the hard thing of facing fears together.

This week I went back to work, and the reality of a new school year and new responsibilities and not doing as much to prepare this summer as I possibly should have hit me square in the chest. So I came home in the evenings and I painted and I prayed, for students new and old and teachers new and old, and for myself as I try to learn and teach all of them.

A friend went through a break up and got back together in the time I was painting the picture, so prayers for her are painted into the canvas as well. My parents moved, I didn’t feel well, and all throughout I met with God in the small, simple act of painting by numbers.

Y’all. This is probably making paint by numbers sound more creative and glamorous than it is, but let me dispel that notion- I was painting in pre-drawn lines with pre-mixed colors. It is closer to math than art. But it was repetitive and methodical and God met me there, in the paint by numbers kit I got on clearance at Michaels. If you’re not convinced that God is concerned with the affairs of mere mortals, the fact that I’ve been communing with him over paint by numbers for the past few weeks might help to persuade you.

Tonight I realized I could finish the whole thing and move on to painting it over in white. I was afraid it would be sad to erase so many hours of work, but it was freeing, a reminder that all of my striving is for nothing. That the poster does not say, “I can do hard things” but “We can do hard things”. It reminds me of my team here, the ones who pull for me and carry me through when I can’t do the hard things, and the ones who I have the privilege of returning the favor for.

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Whitewashing weeks of work.

 

I cannot wait to hang this We Can on the We Can wall, to lead my students straight into the hard things and trust in God to sustain us with the prayers already painted into the canvas, thinly veiled under the white paint.

We Can do hard things. And God will meet us in the hard and in the mundane, because He makes even paint by numbers beautiful.

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2 Comments

  1. Betsy Henning · · Reply

    This is beautiful, Rachel, simply beautiful…the words, the painting, the craft, the encouragement, and the inspiration. Thank you for one more inspired story!

  2. Sorry I haven’t been on this site for a while!! I LOVE this! It’s so appropriate for both ESL students and the human/spiritual journey! And I love the whitewashing effect on top of the paint by number. :) Good luck this year! I was back this week, too, and I am crazy tired!

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