Thinking inside the box

How I got complete strangers to reveal personal truths during a pandemic and what I learned from them

What+questions+can+I+write+on+my+whiteboard+to+get+strangers+to+stop+and+think%3F+Follow+me+through+this+week+of+my+anonymous+q%26a+project+to+find+to+see+what+I+come+up+with+and+the+results.+

Chloe Marco

What questions can I write on my whiteboard to get strangers to stop and think? Follow me through this week of my anonymous q&a project to find to see what I come up with and the results.

Lucy Marco, co-online editor in chief

The value of human interaction has completely changed over the past year and a half. Some people rejoice as we go back into in-person school, surprised by how energized they feel surrounded by their peers. While others are nonplussed, missing the days of staying at home or still feeling uncomfortable being in person with the Delta COVID variant.

Either way, meeting new people is essential to individual development. And, introvert that I am, I was surprised at how much I missed it.

My blog, which I had pretty much abandoned over the pandemic, felt uninspiring and stuck. But with a bit of brainstorming, my mom and I came up with “the box project,” an idea that excited me. It’s simple: I write a question on a whiteboard (preferably a personal question) and provide a pen and paper for passing strangers to use to write a response. The final touch would be some sort of box where the stranger can drop their answer for privacy.

(Side note: This experiment transpired in April, but I delayed writing it up in an effort to locate missing notes, which alas, never came to light.)

 

Day 1:

I went on a hunt for materials and found a small dry erase board that I cleverly (if I do say so) hooked to a common shoe box, snazzed it up with wrapping paper and duct tape, and cut a hole out of the top. I attached a tiny notebook to the top with tape and tied a pen to it with string. 

Next, I needed to determine a location — well-frequented enough to make sure I got a decent number of responses, but private enough to not be immediately stolen or destroyed. I decided on a spot near Shipe Park on the wall in front of the Elizabeth Ney museum. I installed the box, weighing it down with a few rocks to make sure it didn’t fly away. 

Behold, my new evil scheme. 

 

Day 2:

I drove up to the box today having no idea what to expect. I opened it up and immediately started digging through the responses.

The first question of the week. “If you were invisible how would people know you’re in the room?” Featuring the mysterious empty DVD case of “The Man with the Iron Fists.” Photo by Lucy Marco.

The answers were pretty entertaining to read. To my surprise, however, a bunch of them were engraved into the paper since the quality pen I had attached sadly ran out of ink. In total there were 12 sheets of paper, which isn’t bad considering the weather had been cold and gloomy lately, and it was the middle of the workweek, so people weren’t walking around the neighborhood as much. Also, an empty DVD case of the movie “The Man with the Iron Fists” was mysteriously left sitting next to the box. I have no idea why, it has no correlation with any of the notes. 

The question: “If you were invisible, how would people know you’re in the room?”

And here were the responses:

“I would mess with someone.”

“I would laugh” [picture of a smiley face]

“Fidgeting or humming”

“Finished trail of candy wrappers”

“I’m SOOOO stinky”

“Tap dancing”

“If you had invisibility you couldn’t see yourself, so your hand-eye coordination would be terrible so you’d probably knock a lot of things over.” [on the back was a drawing of the vintage, World War II era “Kilroy was here” meme]

“My perfume”

“Giggles”

“Knock books off bookshelf”

“I’m SOOOOOOO LOUD.”

“My fire music taste- LOL THE PEN RAN OUT.”

Something I loved about these responses was how much personality each one had beyond just the actual written answer. Some of them were neatly folded into quarters, some crumpled into a ball, some were rolled up into a scroll. The same applies to the wide variety of handwriting. 

For a second I thought about why I was doing the box method and not just putting in a free response question on my Instagram story, and decided the anonymity adds an interesting layer. These aren’t just responses from people I know (at least I don’t think so); these are from random people going on walks in the neighborhood. 

So I gathered up the notes, and walked over to the Fresh Plus grocers to get a new pen and a small bottle of hand sanitizer, a safety measure that might make people more comfortable with picking up a random pen during a pandemic (something I didn’t think of before).   

 

Day 3:

The question of the day for day 3. “What would you tell yourself one year ago?” Photo by Lucy Marco.

Today was one of my favorite questions. It was not exactly creative or unheard of during the pandemic, but I thought the anonymity would provide some good answers. The question was “What would you tell yourself one year ago?” 

Like my weather app warned me, the rain came in abruptly in the evening causing me to leap into my car and rush to the box. Thankfully, the notes weren’t damaged too badly; they only needed to be laid out to dry. The box, however, was damaged beyond repair. 

The notes were fun to read through even though there weren’t many due to the rain. 

A year ago, I would tell myself…

“GIVE AUSTIN A CHANCE (staying for another year now).” 

“Don’t let an abuser manipulate you into signing a contract you can’t get out of.”

“Travel more!”

“Celebury LAJF”  (I have no clue what this means)

“Celebury LAJF” (again… what?)

“She’s going to try to come back into your life. I know you miss her and that you’re lonely but you’re so much better without her. I promise! The people you’re going to get to know are so wonderful, and you don’t need her to feel whole.”

“The Law of Attraction will continue to change your life for years to come. A year from now you’ll validate this in a random box in your new neighborhood.”

I spent the next few hours trying to figure out what “Celebury LAJF,” meant to no avail. Maybe it was a different language? Maybe a religious incantation I’m not aware of? Why were there two? Was this a cult thing? Maybe a fraternity or sorority reference? An abbreviation? Long and jiggy frogs? A misspelling of celebrate life? It had to be a cult saying.

I later remade the box but not nearly as good as the last one. A half-hearted effort after spending so much time on the “Celebury LAJF” question. 

 

Day 4:

Trying Day 3’s question again for Day 4. “What would you tell yourself a year ago today?” Photo by Lucy Marco.

I decided to give yesterday’s question another go because I felt like it didn’t get the full attention it deserved, and the responses from yesterday were so killer. And I was right. Behold today’s replies to “What would you tell yourself a year ago from today?”

“Don’t give up on each other. You’re going to be together in Austin and so so happily married.”

“Today’s my birthday, so I would have told myself that your next b-day has more hope. Thx Pfizer!”

“Being nothing and being everything are much the same. A way to be a static king.”

“It is always okay to ask those close to you for help.”

“To enjoy Dad-Son school! And we did!” 

“Don’t take the job.”

“You’re going to be okay. It will get hard but you’re getting better every day. You’re valuable just the way you are. Love you!”

“Be prepared for a math test.”

“You’re right where you need to be.”

“Breathe a lot. Start therapy. This will be very hard (Had third child 3/20/20) But you will survive. -C.H.”

“You’ll be fully vaccinated by mid-April. Relax. And nobody you love will die. -J.H.”

“Say yes to more things!”

“You are beautiful and amazing and full of love (and stay away from men on dating apps).”

“Plant twice as many tomatoes and squash.”

“Buy Dogecoin, sell at 5 cents, retire!”

“You’ll own an amazing puppy.”

“Go easy, forgive everything, be gentle, and enjoy.”

“This will take longer than you think, but you’ll be happier than ever on the other side.”

“Take this chance to breathe and grow. This is an opportunity, not just a lockdown.”

“Bring em into y’all’s world, mi amour.”

“Buy Dogecoin.”

I had to omit four notes due to them being very inappropriate. Two of them were definitely written by middle school boys and the other two were just in poor taste.

After reading through all the notes today I was astounded by how many people my box reached. I got way more answers than I had ever imagined, and great answers too. My favorite is “be prepared for a math test,” clearly written by a child whose biggest concern is doing better on an unexpected test–both relatable and precious. 

Some of them were very real and raw: The regretful “don’t take the job” note was particularly poignant, making me wonder about the backstory. And the mom bracing herself for her third baby in March of 2020. It’s hard to imagine how isolating it must have been to have a baby right as COVID started.  

A lot of the notes included a bunch of random capitalizations–is this an adult thing? I also couldn’t help wondering, do I know these people or have I seen them around? I’ve been casually asking my friends in my neighborhood if they saw the box at some point to see if any of the answers are from them. So far no one knows what I am talking about. 

This was the day someone stole my notebook. Or it flew away. I’m gonna choose to think someone stole it though because I’m mad.

 

Day 5:

Today I was expecting heavy rain so I wasn’t sure if I should go through with it or not. I decided to do it and pose a very personal

The question for Day 5 is very personal. “What is a secret you’ve never told anyone?” Photo by Lucy Marco.

question just to see what would happen (I wasn’t expecting a lot of answers anyway): “What is a secret you’ve never told anyone?” I also wrote a warning to the notebook stealer–and it seemed to work.

I am so embarrassed to write about this day that it’s taken months for me to write this blog. I somehow lost the answers to this question–even though there were only four answers and one of them was just “butts.” I will regret this for the rest of my life. Two of them were so incredibly good. This is almost like the tragic loss of the Ancient Library of Alexandria. 

I’ve literally spent months looking in every nook and cranny for the lost answers and have never found them. I’m so mad. The search will continue. 

Day 6:

Day 6’s question is both difficult and sort of boring: “What movie would you take with you to Mars?” Photo by Lucy Marco.

Today I was particularly stressed with school and asked a very lame question. But the truth is, I wanted movie recommendations. So I asked, “What movie would you take with you to Mars?”

“Deathly Hallows part 2”

“Ratatouille”

“Metropolis”

“I Am Sam”

“My home movies of my loved ones”

“Pan’s Labyrinth”

“Mircale (2004)”

“Pitch Perfect”

“What We Do in the Shadows”

“Tangled”

“Princess Mononoke”

“La La Land”

“ALADDIN!”

“Twister”

“Glitter/Showgirls”

“Love Actually”

“Chinatown”

The answers from today added some movies to my list while a few made me concerned. The home movies response was kind of cheating, but I would probably take them with me as well so, I let it slide. 

While I was decanting the notes from my box and rewriting the question for tomorrow, I was approached by two people I know. Explaining to them what I was doing was slightly embarrassing and very confusing for them. 

Also, SOMEONE STOLE MY NOTEBOOK AGAIN. I want to fight this middle school boy who thinks he is pulling the prank of the century. He’s actually dramatically stunting my project–imagine all the answers I could have gotten if the notebook was there. I should have written him a warning on the board again.

Day 7: 

Question for Day 7. “What was your favorite toy or stuffed animal as a kid?” Photo by Lucy Marco.

Today I kept it light-hearted, asking people to reach back into a sweet part of their childhoods. “What was your favorite toy or stuffed animal as a kid?” 

“Cabbage Patch doll”

“Power Rangers”

“Mishka–stuffed teddy bear my parents brought with us from Moldova. Mishka means bear in Russian. He is sticking out his tongue. Toy trains–my dad’s answer.”

“Digimon”

“I didn’t have a stuffed animal but I did have a pillow I had to have all the time.”

“I had a blanket/lamb called ‘squishy baby.’”

“Stuffed husky from Disney Epcot.”

“Either a rabbit or … the one I really recall was Tigger. My late dad left behind a dog and gave it to her; she’s gentle.”

“Drop Dead Fred Teddy Bear.”

“Oshawott- Oliver Peterson Paigle.”

“I had a stuffed dog named Puppy and grew up to adopt a dog named Ginger who looks strikingly like Puppy.”

“Bunny Fu-Fu (small rabbit hand puppet).

“Giant SpongeBob!” [with big drawing of SpongeBob]

“My stuffed panther, Shadow.”

“Cheer Bear! (the care bear)”

“A lamb beanie baby.”

“Tucson the Teddy Bear.”

I am a firm believer that special childhood stuffed animals and toys say a lot about a person, and I think today’s answers proved that right. Personally, I had three little blankets that I all called “baba.”  I liked the sweet back story about the Moldovan “Mishka” and the father’s favorite toy, toy trains. And of course the precious giant SpongeBob. 

The notebook was gone once again, but I was happy with the number of answers I received. I am honestly impressed with the thief who is carefully unsticking the notebook from the box and untying the pen. I hope he’s putting the notebooks to good use.

By the end of this experiment, I was surprised by how much people opened up in their answers, oftentimes leaving heartfelt or truly personal messages. I think it proves how lonely many were feeling during quarantine. It also says a lot about humans and our need to connect and share stories. I would love to redo this project during a less rainy week and maybe in a more popular spot.