Dear Strangers

On the first day of class, we write “Dear Stranger” poems.

“Tell a complete stranger,” we say, “who you are without any mask at all on. What makes you you? What does it look like when you stop hiding?”

The heads of twelve men bend, think. They hold their pens over freshly opened notebooks. Some feet are crossed, firmly set. Some bounce. We’re quiet.

When time is up, we ask for volunteers.

We hear anger.

We hear grace.

We hear questioning.

This is the raw material of grappling. This is the beginning.

It’s our first day together, and everyone is understandably a bit reserved, including me. But when the students ask me to share too, I do. I talk about the mask of grief I wear, and my heart races. It’s the most sacred part of me, and I’m saying it out loud an hour after meeting these people. Accelerated sharing—the marrow of a creative writing classroom.

I read the piece, calmly as I can, and deliver the last line: “When I meet people, I may as well say, ‘My name is Maggie, and my mother is dead.’”

The question of pity.

Hushed air.

Silence.

And then: “Who do you think would win for real?” I hear to my right. “The Hulk or Ironman?”

It’s Grinch. His voice comes loud and clear. He’s smirking, arms crossed. We’re getting to the truth.

The debate swells. Calvin shouts from the other side of the room. Cuz Cuz chimes in.

“But he’s a machine!”

“No way, man, he’s wayyyy too strong.”

“In the movies, he always falls out of the sky at some point.”

This is what we do.

Dead mothers and super heroes. America. Nicki Minaj. We talk about Roberto Clemente, Bill Peduto, and why it’d be impossible to keep a sloth as a pet. They write about their children, sunny days in the Grand Caymans, tacos, and snow. They write how they’ve forgotten what it feels like to cry, how their girlfriends could embody wolves. They write evil bunnies and Yorkies in purses and the worst day of their lives. They write hope, fear, sadness, and rage. They write cars. They write stars. Screen doors and love.

There are no limits. How could there be?

They fill their pages like sinking gourds.

At the end of the third class, we ask them what they learned that day.

“That no matter what, you’ll find a way you’re connected to every single person.”

“That if you write it down, someone else will understand.”

-Maggie Pahos, Teacher