First Marking Period
Anderson’s novel Speak begins with the protagonist, Melinda Sordino, on her way to the first day of high school. Melinda is very nervous about boarding the bus, though the reason for her tension is not provided. The school bus is empty when she gets on, but she carefully contemplates where she will sit. Although sitting in the front of the bus reminds her of being in elementary school, she decides sitting close to the front door is her best choice. By the time the bus arrives at school, Melinda is the only student who sits alone. All her old friends have shunned her.
Inside the school gym, Melinda looks to find someone to stand with. She recognizes the different groups by types, such as the athletes, the cheerleaders, the Plain Janes. Her middle-school friends look her way and laugh. Melinda assumes they are laughing at her. No one motions for her to join them. When she spots Rachel Bruin, who used to be her best friend, Melinda sees Rachel mouth the words ‘‘I hate you.’’ Melinda turns away and remains in her group of one. She names her group the Outcast.
Melinda wanders from class to class, offering a cynical view of her teachers. Her English teacher is dubbed Hairwoman, because of the woman’s long black hair that is tinged in neon orange at the tips. Melinda refers to her social studies teacher as Mr. Neck, because of the thickness of his neck. Mr. Freeman, her art teacher, retains his name. He makes her feel relaxed and appears, to Melinda, to be more sane than most other adults in her life. Mr. Freeman tells his students that in his class they will discover their souls. For their first assignment, students pull pieces of paper out of an old globe. On the papers are names of objects. Melinda’s paper contains the word tree. Mr. Freeman says that they will use this object as their model for all the art work they will complete that year. They may paint, sketch, sculpt, or use any other medium they choose. However, all their work will focus on their selected object. Their grades will be based on how well they express an emotion through their finished pieces.
Later, Melinda thinks about her mother, with whom she has a strained relationship. Her mother manages a clothing store in downtown Syracuse. Most clothing stores that Melinda is familiar with and where her friends shop are located in the suburban malls. Downtown stores are considered dangerous. Melinda believes her mother likes the challenge. Her mother thrives on doing things that scare other people. Melinda demonstrates, as the novel progresses, that, unlike her mother, her most dominant emotion is fear.
The only student willing to associate with Melinda is a new girl named Heather. She is very unlike Melinda. She is very attentive to her clothes and her grooming, wants to be popular, and seeks ways to insert herself in the middle of school activities. Heather dominates Melinda, telling her how and what to eat at lunchtime and criticizing Melinda’s negative outlook about socializing, exercising, and attending classes. However, Heather is better than nothing. Melinda goes along with Heather’s plans and accepts her evaluations because Melinda also feels that having at least one friend is better than being alone.
One day, while Melinda is attempting to avoid Mr. Neck, who is trailing her because she has not turned in her assignments, Melinda ducks into a janitor closet to hide. In the back of the closet she discovers an overstuffed chair and decides this will be the perfect place to get away if the pressure of school becomes too intense. Eventually, she hangs up posters and some of her art projects, claiming the space as her personal lounge.
At a pep rally before a football game, a student Melinda does not know asks, ‘‘Aren’t you the one who called the cops at Kyle Rodger’s party?’’ Another student adds, ‘‘My brother got arrested at that party.’’ Then the student says, ‘‘I can’t believe you did that.’’ It is through these statements that readers gain further insights into Melinda’s social problems.
Melinda receives her report card, and her parents explode. She gets an A in art, a B in biology, and Cs in everything else. Previously, she received straight As.
Second Marking Period
Melinda begins to show physical symptoms of her stress. She chews on her lips hard enough to draw blood and scabs have formed around her mouth. Her throat is always sore, which she believes is from having to hold back screams. She says she has a beast that is locked inside her. The beast represents the memories of what happened to her on the night of the summer party. She seldom speaks to anyone, even when they ask questions. Her thoughts are so disoriented that she cannot manage words. She has headaches and rarely sleeps.
In her biology class, David Petrakis sits next to her. Melinda believes that he has the potential to be cute one day. She also fantasizes about being friends with him. David is also in her social studies class. One day after Mr. Neck cuts off a spontaneous classroom debate about immigrants, David stands up to him and demands a right to speak. A few days later, David brings a video recorder to class to gather information about Mr. Neck’s teaching performance. Rumors are that David is working to gather evidence for a suit against Mr. Neck. Melinda is impressed. David becomes her hero.
On Thanksgiving Day, Melinda’s mother is called to the store on an emergency. So Melinda’s father must cook the turkey. Her dad makes a mess and has to throw the turkey away. Melinda gets an idea to use the turkey bones for an art project. She rescues the carcass. Mr. Freeman is impressed with the sculpture that Melinda creates from the bones and other found objects. When Melinda finds a doll’s head, she seals the doll’s mouth with tape. From this, Mr. Freeman senses Melinda is in pain. When he acknowledges this, Melinda runs from the classroom.
On Christmas Day, Melinda is touched emotionally when her parents give her art supplies. They have noticed she has taken an interest in drawing. The fact that they have noticed her is what impresses Melinda. This makes her want to tell them what happened to her, but she quickly changes her mind.
Back at school in her biology class, Melinda and her partner David must dissect a frog. David places the frog on its back and pins its feet to the dissecting board. Melinda raises the knife to make a cut down the length of the frog’s belly when her mind is flooded with a flashback to that summer night. She hears a scream deep inside her and feels a pain. Then she passes out. As she falls, she hits her head against the table and must go to the hospital. As a doctor flashes a light into her eyes, checking for signs of a concussion, Melinda wonders if the doctor can see her thoughts. She wishes he could cut out all her memories.
A few days later, Andy Evans comes to the table where Melinda is sitting, eating her lunch. Some of Melinda’s former friends are sitting at the other end. Andy stops behind Melinda and plays with her ponytail. She runs to the bathroom and pukes. Andy is the boy who raped her. It worries Melinda that her ex-best friend flirts with Andy.
Report cards come out. Melinda’s grades are getting worse.
Third Marking Period
Melinda misses the school bus and must walk to school. She passes a bakery. Just as she approaches the front door, Andy walks out. She freezes in fright. Andy asks if she wants a bite of his donut. She cannot speak, but she does run. As she escapes, she wonders why she did not run that summer night when he attacked her. Why did she stay and take his punishment?
In Hairwoman’s English class, the students are reading The Scarlet Letter. The story is about a woman who has committed adultery and is forced to wear a red letter A on her chest. Melinda thinks that she and this woman would have been good friends. She thinks she should wear the letter S on her clothes. The S would stand for ‘‘silent, for stupid, for scared. S for silly. For shame.’’
The tree Melinda is working on in art class is frustrating her. She has tried to paint a tree, to sketch a tree, and to carve a tree out of a linoleum tile. None have worked.
Melinda’s relationship with Heather is, at best, strained. Heather has joined a group called The Marthas. One of the rules of this group is that they buy similar clothes and wear coordinated outfits to school. They also do charitable work. Heather always enlists Melinda’s help. Heather, being the newest member, is given all the grunt work, which she then passes on to Melinda. Melinda always caves in, as Heather is her only friend. At lunch one day, Heather tells Melinda that the two of them have nothing in common. She thanks Melinda for being nice to her when school first started, but it is now time to cut their ties. She also says Melinda is depressed and should seek help.
A white envelope is taped to Melinda’s locker on Valentine’s Day. She does not know how to react to it. She has a glimmer of hope that it might be from David, but she does not want to get too excited. The envelope could also be a cruel joke. So she does not open it right away. After her next class, she comes back to her locker and opens the envelope. It is from Heather. Besides the card, the friendship necklace that Melinda gave Heather is inside. Heather thanks Melinda for understanding. Melinda is crushed.
Mr. Freeman hands Melinda a book on the artist Pablo Picasso in art class. He thinks it will give her some ideas. After reading it, Melinda draws a tree in cubist form, with lots of geometric shapes. Mr. Freeman is impressed. After school, he sees Melinda walking toward town and offers a ride. Before he drops her off, he tells her he is available at any time if she needs to talk.
A few days later, Melinda runs into David at a basketball game. He invites her to a party at his house. She refuses the invitation. She is afraid that he might be lying about his parents being there. She thinks he might be luring her into a position where she cannot defend herself. She cannot stand the thought of his touching her. Later, she gets angry with herself for refusing to go. She then thinks back on the events of that summer party. She went with a group of her girlfriends. Most of the kids there were older and were drinking. Melinda drank beer for the first time in her life and got sick. She went outside, fearing she might vomit. Andy followed her. She was amazed that he paid attention to her. He pulled her into him and started kissing her. All she could think was how amazed her girlfriends would be if they could see her in Andy’s arms. But things went too far, and Melinda struggled to get free. Andy covered her mouth with his hand and forced her to the ground. He hurt her. Then he left her lying there.
Melinda was only thirteen. She had no experience with other boys. She did not know what to do next. She could only think of calling the police. When they came, Melinda had run away. She did not want to tell anyone.
The third report card comes out. Melinda gets an A in art, but all the other grades are Ds and Fs.
Fourth Marking Period
Ivy is in Melinda’s art class. Ivy is the first not to shun her. Ivy knows nothing of what happened at the summer party, but she appreciates the art projects that Melinda creates. She praises Melinda, telling her she is better than she realizes. She encourages Melinda when she shows signs of giving up. Ivy and Mr. Freeman help to rebuild Melinda’s self-confidence.
When Melinda notices how attached Rachel is to Andy, she tries to warn her. She senses that she cannot come right out and tell her what happened, but she does send her an anonymous note telling Rachel to be careful. When Melinda’s note to Rachel does not appear to affect her, Melinda finally tells Rachel that Andy raped her. Rachel is furious with Melinda, telling her she is just jealous because Andy has asked Rachel to the prom.
While at home, sick with the flu, Melinda again reflects on the summer party. It is the first time that she is able to see that she did nothing wrong. She did not entice Andy. She even told him to stop. She did not want to have sex with him. She was raped. Up until then she was too overcome with shame to acknowledge this. Now, as she is able to more fully grasp what actually happened, she knows that what Andy did was wrong.
Rachel breaks up with Andy. Apparently, Andy became too aggressive, and Rachel fought him off. Andy is furious about this. When he learns that Melinda warned Rachel, he follows Melinda to the janitor’s closet and traps her. He is harsh with her both verbally and physically and tries to rape her again. This time, Melinda screams out and tries to push him away. She makes it out of the closet unscathed. At the end of the story, Melinda creates the perfect tree in art class, a tree that opens up all her emotions, and Melinda begins to tell Mr. Freeman what happened to her.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Laurie Halse Anderson, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.