Sometimes we caught sight of tattered knee socks rounding a corner, or came upon them doubled over, shoving books into a cubbyhole, flicking the hair out of their eyes. But it was always the same: their white faces drifting in slow motion past us, while we pretended we hadn't been looking for them at all, that we didn't know they existed.
This quote, from the middle of Chapter Three, illustrates the boys' constant awareness of the Lisbon girls' presence at school, as the academic year begins and the community awkwardly comes to terms with Cecilia Lisbon's death. While local television shows feature sobbing teens regretting their own attempts at suicide, the Lisbon girls keep to themselves, allowing no one to fathom the depths of their suffering. In this passage, the girls appear as a procession of white faces, blonde hair, old clothes and dreams, reflecting the boys' continual struggle to piece together the girls' story. For just as the boys glimpse fragments of the girls' bodies in this quote, they can only glimpse fragments of the girls' motives and thoughts throughout the novel. The boys try, unsuccessfully, to assemble the pieces into an organic whole. But the boys' task is more complex than simply assembling evidence. Instead, they must fight the community's tendency to group the Lisbon girls as a single monolithic entity, and to understand the sisters as unique creatures. The difficulty of the boys' tasks is underscored by the passage's use of "they" to describe the girls and "we" to describe the boys, symbolizing one indistinct group trying to make sense of another.
Finally, the passage highlights the importance of sight and vision throughout the novel, as the girls are constantly the objects of the boys' gaze. The boys use the language of photography to describe the Lisbon sisters, implying that they are art objects to be looked at and cannot look back any more than a photograph can return a glance. Likewise, in the quote above, when the boys refuse to acknowledge that they have been looking at the girls, they implicitly refuse to acknowledge the girls as true human beings who are able to meet their gaze. By extension, the boys fail to enter directly into the girls' suffering, and they cannot accept the girls as tragic creatures for whose suicides they cannot be held responsible.