In the Christian circles in which I regularly find myself, the virtues of self-control and self-discipline are taught and referred to as though they truly were a matter for us to determine for ourselves. Especially during seasons like Lent, we get up an hour earlier than normal for prayer; we fast during our lunch time; we exercise for the spiritual benefit. We work hard to be more like Christ, to find a greater potential for grace. It’s as though we are saying to ourselves, “Because I want to be more spiritual, then I will control myself to achieve that goal.”

So, day after day, I attempt to control myself, or actually, to control the self in me. My hidden “self.” And some days, I do fine. Really, I should congratulate myself. And some days, it’s a struggle, and I lose.

Reminds me of a little first grade boy I met when I was filling in as a substitute teacher at a local elementary school. I’ll call him “Brad.” He was a charming little boy, really he was. You just had to put up with a lot of misbehaving to see it. He wasn’t a dumb or dull child – when he set his mind to it, he could actually complete his worksheets and do his math assignments with the best of them. And his creativity and ingenuity – who could match it? There was no other child in the class so adept at finding alternative activities to the ones the teacher had left for us.

I was warned about Brad before the teacher even left the building that day. He was particularly noted for being one of two boys who often fooled their substitute teachers into putting them on the wrong buses at the end of the school.

Brad had proven himself ornery from the minute I arrived. He was taking off his shoes, walking around the room, and looking at various items on the teacher’s table while I was introducing myself. He needed a bathroom break just minutes after he had already taken one, and to look at him, you’d think his chair was on fire. He couldn’t stay in his seat to save his life.

He got few of his assignments done that day, nearly caused a riot at his table when he continually corrected everything a classmate said, and almost missed the bus at the end of the day because he couldn’t fix the straps on his backpack. I ended up carrying the backpack all the way to bus 14 because it was hurting his hand. These incidents were all minor, however, compared to the situation with Brad that really caught my attention.

We were working on math worksheets together in class – I would present the problem, give the children a couple of minutes to respond with the correct answer, and then we would all write the solution on our math worksheets. The back of the page would be sent home as homework.

Now, I’m not trained as a first grade teacher, and I have to admit that classroom management is not one of my strengths (as a matter of fact, I’m usually the one that gets the children all wound up and in trouble). But I at least command a fair amount of respect, and to my credit the children were generally well-behaved sitting there as little Euclids. And although my vision cannot take in an entire room at once, I usually am fairly aware of what is happening in the classroom.

And so with that in mind, it’s even more remarkable that one minute Brad is working on his math paper and the next time I turn to look at him, he’s blue. Now, I’m not speaking figuratively, like he’s feeling blue. And I’m not speaking hyperbolically, like he actually has on a blue shirt but I categorize his whole being as a color. No, I’m talking about good, old fashioned, every bit of skin you can see below his nose turning blue. His arms, hands, and the lower part of his face were covered in blue Crayola marker. And though I didn’t discover it until later, thankfully it was washable.

Somehow, in the seconds that I had my head turned toward the children on the other side of the room from Brad, he had taken a marker from his art supply box, and began marking himself up. On top of that, while the ink was still wet, he began rubbing it in and spreading it all around, so that in a very short amount of time, he had done a significant amount of damage.

Now, from my brief encounter with Brad, I realized that this sort of behavior was yet another ploy for getting out of his seat and actually out of the room, to be allowed to go to the restroom for a chance to wash the blue away. But I was a formidable opponent, and I decided before he even had the chance to ask that Brad was not going to be given permission to leave the room.

I also assumed that these types of antics were some 7-year-old attempt at getting attention. After all, there aren’t a lot of blue people walking around. But perhaps I was wrong on this count, for the more the children in the class stared, the more angry Brad became. In fact, it happened in waves. As each child would catch a glimpse at Brad, sitting there all blue, they would shout out in shock, “Miss Singleton, look. He turned blue.” To which Brad would reply, “She already knows,” taking away any sense of victory a tattler might have in being first to inform the teacher.

When the children were working on the rest of the math work individually, I decided to take the opportunity to talk with Brad about his behavior. We had already had similar conversations throughout the afternoon, and honestly, in retrospect, his answer for this misdeed was a good one. At the time, I refused to accept it.

“Brad, why did you color on yourself?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, didn’t you realize you were doing it?”

“Yes. I know you said I need to control myself, but I can’t.”

“Well, I don’t think you’re trying. You need to try harder to control yourself.”

“OK, I’ll try.”

And so, after an hour in class and a 20 minute recess, Brad was given permission to go to the washroom, and to my relief, the blue was soon a memory. Who’s to say what his parents would have thought about his brief encounter with Smurfism?

Originally, I catalogued in my mind the details of Brad’s blue experience because I knew it would make a great story to tell. You know, my first day of substitute teaching and a child paints himself blue. And it has brought a good many laughs along the way. But as I told the story over and over, I realized that Brad, without realizing, spoke great spiritual truth that day.

And actually, what’s to keep me from coloring myself blue some day?

“It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.
“I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?
“The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.”
–Romans 7:21-25 from The Message