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FAREWELL COLUMN: Reaching out, looking back

"Today I had a thought: What if I had never met you?"

-- Carrie Bradshaw, episode 93 of "Sex and the City"

I never met Maggie Schneider.

I had a chance to--on my very first day at Duke, and really, every day thereafter until the snowy December 2002 afternoon when she peacefully, yet tragically passed away several days after an accident in which a drunk driver pummeled her car. But it never happened--we never met.

On that first sweltering, August morning, my father and I were late in joining my mother in the cool confines of Schaefer Theater, where some of the newest crop of Blue Devils and their parents were waiting to sign over their souls to the credit card and debit card demons. My mother had volunteered to stand in line while my father and I took care of other orientation duties, and when we finally arrived, she didn't want to talk about where we had been or the benefits of Wachovia over the other local banks, but rather, how this gregarious blonde girl from Canada just wouldn't stop meeting people in line.

I turned to find Maggie standing a few spots behind us. She had made the trip from her native Newfoundland, Canada, without her parents, but you could hardly tell she was alone. As enthusiastic as everyone should be on their first day of college, she was chatting with anyone in a 10-foot radius, greeting her new classmates with open arms and charming moms and dads with her Julia Roberts smile and unabashed zest for life. She was the type of girl I knew my mom wanted me to meet at Duke--beautiful, brilliant, generous, outgoing and passionate.

And at that moment, I had my chance. All it would have taken for me to bring Maggie into my life--indeed, to make her my first friend at Duke--was to take a cue directly from her and simply reach out my hand and offer a short, almost trivial greeting: 'Hi, Maggie, I'm Alex.' But I didn't do it: not that day in Schaefer Theater or any other day during the next two-and-a-half years when I often saw her around campus.

At the time, I blamed my hesitation in meeting new people (it didn't end with Maggie) on my inherent shyness. My timidity had hung onerously over the first 18 years of my life and no matter how much I tried to shake it, I thought I was destined to have it follow me through my college years and beyond.

Reflecting now, however, my hesitation was not merely shyness, but more a fundamental fear of taking a risk and pushing my personal boundaries in the simple pursuit of a friend.

This column, my final byline in The Chronicle, isn't about seizing the day, living life to the fullest or reaching for the stars. (For that, I refer you to Dave Matthews' and Tim Reynolds' 1995 Luther College concert, which I contend is about as good an encapsulation of those ideals, not to mention the secret of life, as you're going to find anywhere). Rather, this column is about simply doing what I didn't do with Maggie, but have since learned is one of the single most important keys to happiness: introducing yourself to a stranger and seeing where life decides to take that fledgling friendship.

Overcoming that fear and taking that chance is a hard thing to do. Over the years, we build around us a wall of family and friends that we trust with our lives and our deepest secrets. But as much as we're always trying to fortify that group and grow it larger and larger, it simultaneously terrifies us to think that it was ever not strong enough, that it ever needed just one more friend. And then we wonder how the new pieces of that wall will fit with the old ones, and if we need them more in our wall than they need us in theirs, or vice versa. As terrifying as the process is, however, it is absolutely essential.

Little by little, I've learned that lesson in my time at Duke. It started first with the Pegram boys, who by second semester freshman year had turned from hall mates I nodded at in the bathroom into best friends I still talk with until the wee hours of the morning. My education continued at The Chronicle, where the oh-so-cozy offices of 301 Flowers and the always-collaborative process of producing a daily newspaper forced me to meet new people--both senior editors and fellow freshman reporters--by the handful. You had to continuously become friends with more and more Chroniclers--if for nothing else than to continue to learn how to be a better journalist from those more experienced than you.

Today, with this issue, the 100-member-strong staff of the 99th volume of The Chronicle says its good-bye, and I'm not sure anyone will miss it more than I will--those 100 reporters, writers, editors, photographers, designers and others are also all great friends. They've worked by my side until dawn and beyond; they've supported my good decisions and my bad ones; they've endured my late-night e-mails, my crazy page-one designs and my taste in music.

For my non-Chronicle friends, a group that will make my future in-laws shudder when they see the size of my half of the wedding guest list, the conclusion of my editorship comes, I think, as a welcome relief. On the one hand, they won't have to endure hearing about the latest drama at the paper or in the Allen Building; and on the other hand, they will actually get to see me out on a night other than Friday or Saturday. Nonetheless, they have always remained unwaveringly supportive of my work on this paper, and in return, I have tried desperately to spend as much of my time out of the office with them. And thankfully, I have largely succeeded, be it at trivia night at the James Joyce, dinner at Bullocks, weekend getaways to the mountains or beach, basketball games in Cameron, cruises in the Caribbean, Burton parties and North-vs.-South keg-offs, study sessions in Perkins, Friday night dinners, games of Kings and Never-Have-I-Ever, marathon instant message conversations, late-night trips to Rick's, final slow dances at ADPi functions or Sunday night group viewings of "Sex and the City."

Ah, yes, "Sex and the City." The quote that begins this column is my favorite from the show's final season. It choked me up the minute I heard it and still does whenever I see it pop up in a friend's away message. For all that the show said about the mores of relationships and sex in today's society, what it revealed the most about human nature was that any heartbreak, any break up, any failed marriage, any miscarriage, any bad date or any worse sex, could be endured if your friends are right there by your side, laughing and crying with you and always available for a 3 a.m. conversation or, better yet, a 3 a.m. hug. What if Carrie had not met Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda? What if she had done what I did with Maggie and not extended her hand and introduced herself to them? Choosing Mr. Big over Petrovsky would have been the least of concerns.

Of course, there is more to a friendship than just that first moment. That moment is a blink of the eye in the life of a friendship, whether it ends 10 minutes later, at college graduation or at someone's funeral. But that first moment is also a friendship's greatest hurdle. Even though it is the simplest act, once it's past, the difficult part is over. The only thing left is to embrace your friendships and cherish them. Forever stand by your friends' side; defend them to the death; and be brutally honest with them when necessary. Celebrate their successes and bemoan their setbacks; cheer them up when they're sad and keep them laughing when they're as happy as can be. Every argument can be cleared up by an apology or a heart-to-heart; and, especially for those seniors graduating in two weeks, friends can still be friends when they don't live in the same area code.

I never met Maggie Schneider, but I can't imagine my life or my time at Duke if I had passed up the opportunity to meet more than a hundred friends just like her.

Alex Garinger is a Trinity senior and editor of The Chronicle. Like his predecessors, he aches with the knowledge that he'll never be either again.

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