By Tim Hayes

From behind the louvered doors of an inset bookcase in our dining room, my sisters and I would occasionally pull out a reference book.  Not to look up anything of interest, mind you, but instead to draw all over it.

Actually, that’s not right.  We wouldn’t draw on the book itself.  First, we’d rip a piece of notebook paper out of our school bags, place it over the cover of that book, and lightly rub a pencil point back and forth.  The book cover featured raised images, you see, and it yielded some really great stencils.

The flag raising at Iwo Jima.  An astronaut.  Abraham Lincoln.  A cowboy riding the range.  I’ll be damned if any of us can remember just what that book was called or what it contained inside, but the cover was absolute dynamite!

The stenciled images looked great.  Nice clear lines, easy to decipher and appreciate, a basic framework of a fuller picture.  If we had anything longer than the attention span of a flea, we would have colored in those stencils and finished the job.  We would have created some terrific, fully fledged, full-color portraits.

But we were grade-school kids, so it soon was on to other things.  And the stencils, impressive as they may have been, remained stencils.

This memory came crashing onto the shoreline of my consciousness about a week ago, as I attended the first-ever reunion of my college’s Journalism Department – the launchpad of my career some 35 years back.

I got to tour the new offices of the student newspaper.  Pretty plush, compared with the basement cinderblock gulag we had to work with – and within – all those years ago.  Large bound binders containing copies of every issue ever published of that newspaper lined the conference room in the new office, and a couple of us old-timers dug in to see how green our initial forays into actual journalism had been.

Pretty damn green, as it turns out.  Fluorescent lime green.  Greener than Ireland in springtime.  But we were college kids.  We were learning the craft.  And at that point in time, we had a long way to go, trust me.  I can show you the evidence, now that I know where it can be found.

As more alumni gathered at happy hour, then at the football game, and finally at a special dinner that reunion weekend, it became clear that our alma mater had done a fine job.  We had turned into accomplished professionals, some still in pure journalism, others in public relations, some in corporate leadership, others with non-profits or government, and even a handful like me as independent consultants.

But we all came from that same place.  We all had the same professors in that department, pushing, cajoling, frustrating, encouraging, molding us into capable, confident writers and thinkers.  It was those skills that enabled each of us to leave that campus and make our marks, even as all of my fellow alumni’s paths may have gotten tricky, complicated, and unpredictable along the way.

It reminds me of sitting in church during a wedding.  The reason folks get teary as they watch two young people make those incredible promises to each other, I’ve come to believe, is not because the bride’s dress shines like an angel, or because the sight of the couple’s devotion is so inspiring.

It’s because people in the congregation, especially those who’ve been married for a while, know that the two moony-eyed individuals sharing those rings and repeating those promises have absolutely no clue about what life will throw at them in the years to come.  People cry at weddings because they care, because they want to believe that the love they witness will be enough to handle the joys and heartaches sure to arrive down the road.

The wedding is the stencil.  The marriage is the full picture.

In much the same way, as we worked those long production nights at the newspaper, and struggled through classes and projects as 20-something college students in journalism, we made friends and formed the basic foundation to start a career.  We were still in stencil form, in other words.

As jobs materialized and vaporized, career paths opened up, spouses and children came along, obligations of all sorts expanded, and illness and issues arose and were overcome, the color and shading got filled in.  So much so, that by the time we all met up again decades later, we each had a much fuller, richer, more interesting portrait to share and enjoy together.

I still love my school.  I still love my Journalism Department.  And I still love my college friends.  The only difference now is that they’re so much more fascinating.  We are stencils no more.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes