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Getting around to it

So, this is awkward.

I graduated from Duke in 2019. And as a four-year columnist and opinion editor of The Chronicle from Fall 2016 to Spring 2018—my sophomore and junior years—I was entitled to write a “senior column” for the newspaper, one that might give a nod to the friendships I made in 301 Flowers, to the Duke community at-large, and to my own Duke career.

I didn’t write that column. In fact, I didn’t write any columns after March 2018.

And today, November 8, 2020, of all days, I’m thinking about that final senior column I didn’t write. I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom in Los Angeles, in the midst of a global pandemic, continuing to feed the inner flames of creativity that were ignited at Duke, writing screenplays and stageplays, throwing literary spaghetti at walls to see what sticks, calling every change of heart a “career move,” and, yet… thinking still about that damn senior column I didn’t write.

Was I a really busy senior? Yeah. But not so busy that I couldn’t have taken to my beloved college platform to write a few words in appreciation of the mentors at the publication, people who believed in some rising sophomore to ask that I not only take over the editorial section, but that I revive it. And not so busy that I couldn’t  write a few more words about the mentees who, for some inexplicable reason, looked to me for guidance and then passed me by, leaving me in awe of their devotion to the craft, to the pursuit of truth and to journalistic integrity and fairness, all the while generously taking me along with them on their journeys.

Had I lost interest? No. In fact, I remained a columnist for The Chronicle my senior year.  Despite failing to deliver any columns during the 2018-2019 academic calendar, I really wanted to. But “really wanting to” doesn’t quite cut it.

So, what happened? There must have been a moment, a specific shifting of the tides, when my desire to write my column no longer translated into action.

And it’s that moment, four years ago, which is on my mind today.

In the midnight hours of November 8, 2016, I published an optimistic column called “Trump, Clinton rallies and hot syrup.” The tl;dr of that column is that I attended North Carolina rallies for then-candidate Donald Trump and then-candidate Hillary Clinton. In it, I noted the vast differences between the two: in comparison to Clinton’s rally, Trump’s rally was poorly attended (although he characteristically lied about it), mostly white (although he did shout out to “his African-Americans in the crowd”), and it gave me the sense that the latest 2016 polls were accurate (and that Trump would indeed lose the 2016 election). Hindsight, right?

For a bit of background, I’m from Southern California, where we were told by parents and teachers that there was no more “progressive” city than ours. (I’d find out later that there was actually no such thing as a truly “progressive” city. Go figure.) Before Duke, I had never met anyone from North Carolina. Part of the reason I chose Duke was to get out of the bubble of my childhood, and prime myself for an eye-opening experience. Little did I know that Duke had its own troublesome bubble.

Then the election happened. That memorable 2016 Tuesday night and early morning, which I spent among friends in The Chronicle’s offices overlooking Abele Quad. And it was in the wee hours of that uneasy morning, as my fellow student-journalists pushed on with the publication of the next day’s print paper, that I realized: s**t, was I misinformed, misinterpreting, misunderstanding, and just plain wrong about what was actually happening at those rallies, and across our country. It gave me no comfort that others were just as fooled as I was. I recognized that my hopeful voice was naively unaware of, well, reality. And thus burned, I remember feeling unjournalistic (which is not a journalistic word), undeserving of a platform like The Chronicle, and weakened. I didn’t know what to do after that very-gray November day. I don’t know if many journalists knew what to do. That didn’t give me comfort either.

And yet despite this growing crisis about my own journalistic abilities, I had a job to do. I was inspired by my colleagues and my heroes in the field, who somehow picked themselves up and continued to pursue journalistic truth and integrity despite a President who bullied and discredited the media at every turn. Our opinion section was admittedly not in good shape when I inherited it, and it was my responsibility to bring representative and valued voices to the newspaper, making sure that columnists were held to publishing two columns per month. So I abandoned my own column in favor of developing those of others. With the seemingly divine interventions of my editorial teammates Leah Abrams and Carly Stern, I restructured the opinion section so that it worked healthily and productively. I held the position for another year, to ensure that the upward trend of our trajectory continued. And I found real joy in helping writers—from a rising first-year to a Durham school teacher—better understand and express their own opinions, honing their voices in this journalistic community.

In the meantime, I fell into the comfort food of my artistic passions, where I could create worlds that were akin to our own, but that were under my control, as I staged stories and characters with the hope of bringing out better versions of our real selves. It provided a simultaneous escape from reality, and a clarion call for a return to reality with more purpose. And at Duke, I found a community in that pursuit. Amongst Hoof ’n’ Horn-ers and Duke Players and a cappella singers and DUI/Inside Jokesters and Small Town recording artists and StudioDuke dreamers and Project Arts stars, I did my best to connect with others, create joy and make a difference. I like to think that I did. And then, last year, I graduated from Duke, leaving behind those communities, and carrying them with me as well.

So back to today, in my childhood bedroom, procrastinating the deadline of my next script and socially distanced for the foreseeable future. It’s November 8, 2020. I’m reflecting on that moment that changed my entire Duke career: November 8, 2016. Two memorable elections. Two earth-shaking results. And I’m thinking about the Duke community members who helped me chart my course from that numbing, confusing moment four years ago, who picked me up when I was down, accepted me at my worst, and stood by me at my best. The Blue Devils who shared their stories with me—in forms of columns and songs and conversations which not only challenged me to break out of my own bubble, but taught me to be a better person.

And today, on a day which feels significantly different from any other—for the first time in four years—I’m thinking about that Tuesday night when everything changed. Four years later, I’m forgiving myself for all of the plans I changed, the deadlines I missed, the dreams I delayed, the opinions I left unwritten. Four years later, I’m considering all the things that I can finally get around to. This belated senior column, being the first thing off my list.

Outside the window, there was so much to see, and hear, and touch — walks to take, hills to climb, caterpillars to watch as they strolled through the garden. There were voices to hear and conversations to listen to in wonder, and the special smell of each day. And, in the very room in which he sat, there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn't know — music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real. His thoughts darted eagerly about as everything looked new — and worth trying. "Well, I would like to make another trip," he said, jumping to his feet; "but I really don't know when I'll have the time. There's just so much to do right here.” – Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

Jackson Prince graduated in 2019. He was editor of the Opinion section from Fall 2016 to Spring 2018.

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