The Superintendent was on board. The idea was to shock the kids into staying away from drugs and alchohol and reckless driving and playing their music too loud. We prefaced the whole thing with an announcement the previous Friday afternoon, asking everyone to play along, students and teachers alike, to live this day as if tragedy were actually happening.

      The first announcement came around 8:15 on Monday. Just as the kids were preparing to leave Mrs. Baker’s homeroom, a local news anchor dressed as the grim reaper knocked on the classroom door and asked Stacie Patterson to come with him. The principal turned on the intercom and cleared his throat and said, “Stacie Patterson is dead.”

      He cleared his throat again. “I’m sorry to interrupt your day with bad news, but we’ve heard this morning that we’ve lost one of our PCHS community. Stacie Patterson, junior varsity soccer star with a 3.5 GPA, was killed today. She was struck by a car and killed. She didn’t hear it coming because like a lot of you in our parking lot she had her earphones on too high a volume. Instead of listening for the roar of oncoming traffic, she spent her last moments listening to the Notorious B.I.G. That is all.”

      We had planned for the emotional impact of Stacie’s desks sitting empty throughout her classes that day. What we hadn't planned for is the number of kids who were absent last Friday or went home ten minutes early and missed the announcement about today’s Ghost Out event. That, combined with Stacie Patterson’s popularity and the push among the drama teachers for students to really play out their feelings, made it tough to tell who was genuinely grieving and who was looking for extra credit points.

      Worse, there was a bet going between the principal’s office staff and the guidance counselors to see who would first break the façade. The receptionist rubbed her eyes with her fists to create a fake redness and accented that with a steady flow of Visine drops she applied in the alcove next to her desk. The school nurse came to school without her wig and with no makeup, which gave her a disheveled, grieving look. The art teacher’s strategy was to think of of the saddest real-life things he could, all day long, continuously. We all did a little of this. We had all seen our share of sadness.

      Kids streamed into the office, some crying or biting their nails, and we offered them Tylenol. That was ok, as long as their parents had signed the permission forms at the start of the school year. We didn’t know if they knew the truth, but we didn’t tell them the truth. Ghost Out wasn’t about truth, and we knew Tylenol would hurt them less. “Where is Stacie now,” a pretty sophomore asked the assistant baseball coach, and he couldn’t very well say she was eating doughnuts in the multipurpose room, preparing to climb into a cardboard coffin for the mid-day assembly.

      “Nobody knows where we go when we die,” said the assistant baseball coach, a Gulf War veteran who blamed his premature baldness on the chemical warfare to which his country had knowingly exposed him. “Some people believe in heaven and hell, but not me.”

      “So it’s possible that we go nowhere,” said the sophomore. “Stacie was somewhere - here -  yesterday, and now she’s nowhere at all?”

      The assistant baseball coach nodded. “That idea will hurt you less, the more senseless deaths you live to witness. That idea will come to comfort you, and for now you can take comfort in the fact that Stacie’s life ended before she was forced to face such a depressing view of the afterlife.”

      This response seemed to satisfy the sophomore. She stopped sputtering and her tears had almost stopped flowing when the principal’s second announcement came over the intercom: “Mr. Newcomb is dead. This is an unfortunate day for PCHS indeed, and I am pained to bring all of you more bad news this morning. Mr. Newcomb, our beloved history teacher, has taken his own life. We don’t yet know the full scope of his suicide note, but we do know that he was a lifelong alcholic, and although he was not driving when he decided to die by his own hand, it was perhaps the unrelenting guilt of his past drunk driving experiences that led him to do it. Assembly at 1 PM today. That is all.”

      Between first and second periods, the hallways were filled with the silence that comes with choking back the sobs of youth faced with its own mortality, and faced with a deep hatred of history that made students feel somehow responsible for Mr. Newcomb’s death. If they had cared more about the Treaty of Versailles, if they had studied harder in the unit on Thomas Paine, perhaps they could have prevented their teacher’s death. Perhaps he would not have turned to the bottle and then to the noose.

      I want you to believe that this is what we wanted Ghost Out to create, a heightened sensitivity to loss. We’d done the research. We’d consulted with the guidance counselors across town. We wanted our students to feel the pain and the guilt and the emptiness. We wanted them to slow down their cars and turn down their earphones and save drinking for college. That is all. 

      Things got complicated when the governor actually died. “The governor of our great state is dead,” announced the principal. “Teachers, please turn on your classroom televisions. This is a black day indeed.” The intercom announcement devastated us all. The students who had not been aware of Ghost Out now questioned first Stacie Patterson, then Mr. Newcomb, now the governor? They believed that this was the most terrible day in history, the end of the world perhaps. This belief led to at least two suicides.

      The students and teachers who had been playing along, however, now questioned how the principal could have taken Ghost Out to this extreme. Had he no morals? Had he the technical know-how to hack into the local news stations?

      The principal declared over the intercom that Ghost Out was officially over. The local newsanchor was sent back to his regular job, where his replacement, the weekend anchor, was botching what should have been the year’s biggest news story.

      “The governor is really dead,” the principal’s announcement continued. “All deaths announced before second period were false. Stacie Patterson is still with us. Mr. Newcomb is visiting his sick aunt in Decatur. Our state’s leader, however, has really and truly been killed by an assassin’s bullet during a town hall meeting. We can all stop pretending to grieve for Newcomb and join the rest of our state in mourning. Any other deaths I announce today will be real deaths. That is all.”

      Some of us accepted this. Some of us did not. Some of us sat with our heads in our hands, weeping. He wasn’t a good governor, but he was ours.

      The students were more forceful in sorting out fact from fiction and correcting the lies of the day. They marched to the principal’s office and demanded that he produce Stacie Patterson, should she truly be alive.

   This act, to which the principal readily agreed, proved impossible. Stacie had taken advantage of a day that she was to spend playing dead and sneaked out of the multipurpose room and away from the school. She was gone before the governor died. By now she was probably shoplifting lingerie, or wasting her parents’ money at the local arcade. Do they still have arcades?

      The word spread that Stacie could not be produced, and this led to a general acceptance among the students that death was real. It had been a confusing day, none of us certain by this point how “in” we were on the joke. But we processed the events of the day, each in our own minds and in our own time, and things calmed down during third period, until the grim reaper appeared again, in Mr. Newcomb’s leaderless class. When he signed in at the front office we looked at him, then at the newsanchor’s face on the television screen, then back at the grim reaper in front of us. What was going on here? We gave him his laminated visitor’s pass.

      His lanky figure knocked on the door of Newcomb’s classroom and pointed directly at a senior named Tom Vanderbilt. Tom immediately clutched his throat and fell to the floor in grotesque spasms that gave way to a final shudder, then nothing.

      “Pills,” the grim reaper said. “Someone gave him pills at the bus stop this morning. Tom was already drunk on his way to school when he swallowed them with a last swig of vodka. And now look at him.”

      Students from the track team had rushed past the grim reaper and out of the classroom before Tom hit the floor. Two girls from the swim team put their lifeguard training to use giving Tom mouth-to-mouth as the grim reaper wailed, “Too late, too late.”

      Members of the debate team stood up. “What can we give you in exchange for the lives of our classmates?” they asked. “We are at the bargaining stage of our grieving process, and this moment could be your opportunity to take full advantage of our grief. What do you want from us? We’ll give you anything. Just bring them back. All of them. We want Tom and Stacie, and the governor, and Mr. Newcomb.”

      “I could bring them back,” said the reaper. “But what won’t come back with them is that part of yourselves that didn’t know this kind of loss. You may still drink and take pills from strangers and hang yourself, but you won’t do it because death hasn’t touched you. You’ll do it because it has. I will bargain with you. I will bring back Stacie and Tom and I will untie Mr. Newcomb’s noose, but what else has died today? What else will you never recover?”

      The debate team sighed. Their classmates around them sighed.

      But the sighs were a stall. 

      Two wrestling team members had approached the grim reaper from either side and now swept him to the floor, pinning the cloaked figure and high-fiving each other.

The wrestlers were wrenching death’s ankles in victory when they heard a crackling new voice come over the intercom.  “God is dead.”

      It was Friedrich Nietzsche, who had himself recently returned from the dead and taken a job as school custodian. “God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

      It was not until Nietzsche spoke that I realized that we in the PCHS administrative staff had become gods in designing the school-wide Ghost Out event. In the absence of God we had taken it upon ourselves to decide who died, and to teach other students how to feel about it. This was before we began to understand. We believed that our biggest foes were uncensored rap music and drinking and reckless driving or piling too many kids into one car. This was before we knew what death was. We just wanted them to listen to us.

      That is why in elementary school we made them read Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows. That is why we told them their friends were dead and made them come in and stare at those empty desks during roll call. We wanted to make them feel the presence of their absence. That is all. We wanted to make them feel the hole in themselves that they left in us.

Mickey is an Assistant Professor of English at Rider University, and the author of Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory,
which was featured as "Critic's Choice" in The Chicago Reader, described as "thoroughly humorous"  by The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, and mentioned online at The New Yorker, Poets &  Writers, and USA Today. He has been published in
Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans: Best of McSweeney's Humor Category, and such journals as McSweeney's,
Ninth Letter, Punk Planet, Fourteen Hills, Opium Magazine, and The Rome Review. 

Ghost Out is a true story of a day I'll never forget from my high school years, when our janitor, Freidrich Nietzsche, spoke some words of wisdom that made the faculty rethink their stances on death. It began as part of a series I wrote in which all the dialogue came from Nobel Banquet speeches and interviews with rappers. Originally, I had Nas show up to tell the students that hip hop was dead, but in the end I cut all that out. Nietzsche was strong enough on his own. I may write another story in which Nas arm-wrestles Toni Morrison.


Copyright 2009