Writing Catalog

Benjamin Elliott

Grade: 12

University School - Hunting Valley

Instructor: Jim Garrett

Paint Transformed Me

Personal Essay & Memoir

Paint Transformed Me

It may be said that a room can be transformed with a gallon or two of paint. And what I learned is also true: a gallon of paint and a paintbrush transformed me.

In my neighborhood, all mailboxes must have the same white wooden posts, according to code. As one glances up and down the street, the mailboxes should present a uniform look — and what I saw was an opportunity for me. The summer I turned fourteen, I decided I was going to offer to paint my neighbors' mailboxes so they could be restored to their original, bright white condition. Never having done any handiwork or painting outside of art class, I was a novice; however, I was determined to learn whatever I needed to make this prospect happen. I gathered my tools, took a crash course (courtesy of my do-it-all mom) on how to sand, caulk, and paint, and finally, I advertised on our neighborhood Facebook page. Requests for my services poured in, and the hours spent painting started to add up. So began my transformation.

It's true that a paint job is only as good as its prep work. Sure, paint can always be slapped on a beat-up mailbox post, but it's obvious when a shortcut is taken. Peeling and sanding layers of timeworn, moldy paint takes patience and effort. Needless to say, this solo undertaking taught me how to unplug. I had no distractions: no friends, no high-tech gadgets, just a weathered piece of wood with a goal in mind to rejuvenate it. This unaccompanied time allowed me to appreciate the simplicity of life — I was a teenage boy soaking up the warm summer air, completely oblivious to the latest social media posts.

Painting also led me to develop more skills and market them to neighbors. As summers passed, neighbors asked me to replace their mailboxes, spruce up address numbers, or add metal flashing to the bottom of the posts to prevent damage from weed whackers. I realized I could trust my handyman skills, expand my services, and grow my entrepreneurial spirit, thereby reinforcing my passion for a career in business.

My neighborhood consists of 310 homes, and while I know most of my neighbors within a certain radius, I had never seen or met many. These unfamiliar faces trusted an unfamiliar high school student to do this work for them, and I was pleasantly surprised by their confidence in me. Oftentimes, as I was working alone, a neighbor would join me to chat and learn a little about me. Though I initially thought these jobs would be purely transactional, I came to discover that wonderful and supportive people surround me, and I can call myself lucky to live in this place. Some neighbors even trusted me with their personal stories: one informed me his wife was ill, and he could not do this work himself. He mentioned needing trim painted around his garage, too, and I didn't hesitate to offer my help. I fully understand now what a gratifying feeling it is to assist a neighbor in need.

Even though I have painted many mailbox posts over the years, as I now drive through my neighborhood, I take note of all the posts that could still use some work. In fact, the first ones I painted are ready to be touched up again; it's a continuous cycle that is ever ongoing. I can guarantee that imperfections will resurface. Though imperfections cannot be permanently disguised, I've discovered an inherent value in them: they are the foundations for change. My initial ad for my painting business was a simple statement offering to beautify the neighborhood with a little paint and elbow grease. Now, looking back on three summers of painting, my resume is much more complete, more introspective, and more meaningful.