Seven deadly sins: Ghosts on campus

Within the cozy community of campus life, there are plenty of cracks to fall through.

By Lori Gottleib
Published February 22, 1999 8:42PM (EST)

There are invisible people on my campus, and I swear, they're everywhere.
Now, I'm no Shirley MacLaine, but on any given day, I can find at least a dozen
of these campus apparitions, and I'll bet if you looked, you could too.

I first found out about the invisible people when my friend Seth stopped me as
I unpacked my spirals in lecture one Monday. "Guess what?" he said, an
urgency in his voice. "I heard a girl in our class killed herself. Can you
believe it?"

"No, who?" I asked, scanning the classroom for an empty seat.

"Anna," Seth replied. "Did you know her?"

"No, I can't even picture her. Did you know her?"

"No one did," he shook his head. "Someone said she must have been the girl
who sat in the last row, in the corner on the right. Isn't that weird?"

Weird, yes. But not just because one of our peers decided to off herself.
Weirder, I think, is the fact that of the 35 people who gathered four
days a week in the same small space, at the same time, over a three-month
period, not one of us ever noticed Anna. How could that be?

By Thursday, though, everyone seemed to know who Anna was, or who they thought she had
been: She was flaky, dedicated, careless, compulsive, failing the class, acing
the class, nice, strange, cooperative, competitive. Her picture was printed
in the college newspaper. A fund was started to help pay her funeral costs.
Everyone rallied around Anna, a name without an identity. In her death, the
girl whom no one knew suddenly became larger than life.

Back in high school, another girl committed suicide. Her name was Tina, and
during freshman and sophomore years, she too was mostly invisible. I knew her
to be the quiet Asian girl who got straight-A's, the one who lugged around a
backpack of books equal to the weight of her small frame. I said "hi" to her
in class, rarely in the hallways. I'd scream, "Hey!" to my friends 15
feet away, but Tina, with her eyes focused on the floor, never caught my

Then one day in French class, Tina, who never raised her hand, volunteered to
answer a question. But instead of giving the correct answer, Tina replied,
"It's time for tea," in an eerie British accent. Heads turned, a few people
snickered. But no one stopped to wonder why the brightest girl in the grade,
the shy student who never spoke in class, would suddenly raise her hand only
to say something nonsensical and bizarre. The teacher simply moved on to
someone else, and Tina became invisible again.

Over the next few months, when my friends and I would see Tina in the halls,
we noticed that she'd be muttering to herself. "Okaaay ..." was our usual
response. Eventually, she began randomly walking up to people and saying
things like, "The end is near, my lady," in her newfound British accent, but
instead of engendering concern, her behavior was viewed, if at all, as an
eccentricity of some sort. Even the bright red lipstick on her formerly naked
lips didn't really register.

When I went to my locker before history a few weeks later, the noise in the
hallway was more frenzied than usual. Like a game of telephone, word quickly
spread: Tina was dead. In the middle of the night, she had shot herself.
The school held an assembly and told us to look out for "warning signs" --
strange behavior, talk of death or dying, changes in appearance. "If Tina had
sent out some warning signs," the school social worker announced self-righteously, "then maybe we could have helped her." It occurred to me then
that Tina did send out warning signs, but her attempts to be noticed were

I'm not sure if Anna sent out any warning signs. Maybe she did and they never
reached me. Maybe they never reached anyone. But Tina's did, and I -- and
many others -- didn't respond to the call. Ultimately, death was the final
message each girl sent, the only message the world would receive. In their
absence, they became visible at last.

After Anna's death, I started thinking about the other invisible people on
campus. Are there others, I wondered, who fell between the cracks? Others
who lived anonymously in our supposedly supportive academic community? I
remembered the girl from last semester who would never come to lecture, then
walk in 20 minutes late for each exam, only to leave within half an hour.
Seth and I would smile and roll our eyes as we worked on our tests -- we'd give
each other a knowing wink that meant, "This will help the curve." But what if
it wasn't funny after all? Maybe this girl wanted to be known for something
other than being the crazy one who screws up on exams. Maybe she just wanted
to be known. Or maybe she didn't care about school and had something more
exciting going on her life. No one ever bothered to ask, though, and I've
never seen this girl on campus since.

Out in the quadrangle, there are trees and benches filled with people
socializing. They are eating, studying, lying in the sun. If I'm there with
some friends during the lunch hour, sometimes I'll see a scrawny guy sitting
alone, eating a sorry-looking sandwich and staring at the ground. People pass
by, but no one says hello. As my friends and I leave, the student will still
be sitting there, the hustle and bustle of the world happening all around him,
as if he exists in a bubble and can't get out. I wonder if Anna used
to sit there too.

Students aren't the only ones who can disappear. There's a whole clan of
invisible people, and I've begun to think that maybe they recognize only each
other, like the pod people in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Maybe the
scrawny student on the bench recognizes the janitor who empties his trash, who
recognizes the woman who runs the laboratory supply room, and so on. There might be a whole tribe of people out there who are nameless and faceless only to the rest of us. The corollary, of course, would be that we visible people are in constant danger of being snatched off into their universe, so I try to discount that theory.

I'd like to think, instead, that we can snatch the invisibles over to our side. So on the way back to my car recently, I started a conversation with
the campus crossing guard. He's a small man, with a weathered face, a hunched
back and piercing blue eyes. He looks old in his yellow rain slicker, and
when he smiles at the students and says, "Have a nice day," they walk or bike
or rollerblade obliviously by, as if he speaks in high decibels, like a dog
whistle, imperceptible to their ears.

"What's your name?" I asked the crossing guard.

He looked at me, astonished. "Are you talking to me?"

"Yes," I said. "I'm Lori. What's your name?"

"Joe," he replied. "Cold weather, huh?"

"Wet and cold," I laughed. "Hey Joe, how long have you been here?"

"Why ya wanna know?" he asked a bit suspiciously.

"Just curious," I said.

"You're the only one," he smiled, then he lifted his stop sign in front of oncoming cars.

"Have a nice day," he told me as we crossed the street, and I said, "You, too,
Joe. You have a nice day too."

I talk to Joe whenever I see him, but it worries me that no one else does.
Because the thing about invisible people is, sometimes you never know they're
invisible until they've actually disappeared.

Lori Gottleib

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Academia Books College Suicide