Monday, August 10, 2009

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

The next thing I saw was the telephone. I stood in the middle of a drunken crowd and I called 911 because I needed help. All those visits from Officer Friendly in the second grade paid off. A lady answered the phone, "Police, state your emergency," and I saw my face in the window over the kitchen sink and no words came out of my mouth. Who was that girl? I had never seen her before. Tears oozed down my face, over my bruised lips, pooling on the handset. "It's OK," said the nice lady on the phone. "We have your location. Officers are on the way. Are you hurt? Are you being threatened?" Someone grabbed the phone from my hands and listened. A scream--the cops were coming! Blue and cherry lights flashing in the kitchen-sink window. Rachel's face--so angry-- in mine. Someone slapped me. I crawled out of the room through a forest of legs. Outside, the moon smiled goodbye and slipped away.

I walked home to an empty house. Without a word.

(Spoiler alert: This book is difficult to talk about without revealing certain things.) There is a canon of literature that belongs solely to middle and high schools that I didn't even know about until I became a teacher, at least here in New York. Some texts, like Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird overlap with that other canon, the canon of American universities; others, like The Giver and other YA books are relatively popular and well-known otherwise. But there are some books--like Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street--that, for whatever reason, seem to exist only in schools, or at the very least, have a popularity as educable texts that vastly outweigh their presence in bookshops.

Speak is one of those books. I had never heard of it until I started teaching; now, it seems to be everywhere. Part of this, I imagine, is because it is a narrative that takes place mainly in a high school, covering the freshman year of a girl named Melinda Sordino. Sordino is an Italian world that means "mute" or "dumb," and appropriately so, as Melinda has problems with communication in general--unable to talk in class, unable to make friends, unable to communicate with her parents. She enters high school viciously unpopular. All of this can be traced back to an incident that happened at the end of the previous school year, when Melinda went to a party where she became intoxicated and was sexually assaulted by an older boy, a boy who happens to go to her new high school and winks at her whenever she walks by. Her former friends, some of whom got into trouble when the cops arrived at the party, have turned her into a pariah.

This is heady stuff. I liked this book a great deal because it does away with one of the most insidious misconceptions about youth: that childhood is a simpler time, an idyll where real problems don't exist. Middle and high school, in case you have forgotten, can be devastating, and to go through an issue like Melinda's is certainly crippling. Anderson deserves all the credit in the world for writing a book for young adults in which an issue like rape is seriously discussed. No wonder that the book is frequently challenged, as if the rush to insulate our children from evil does anything but teach them they have nowhere to turn in times of real crisis.

I read this book in about an hour and a half, but as brief as it was, I felt it was very powerful. I am considering teaching it next year, depending on the grade to which I am assigned.


Amanda said...

I agree - very good book. It's the first I've read by Anderson, and I have a couple others by her I want to read now. I think this could be great to study in high school.

Rebecca Reid said...

Wow. Sounds like a powerful book for high schoolers, but just from the summary, I can see how it could be questionable! It's a difficult subject. I'm very curious to read it now.

Meagan said...

i read this one a while back (maybe when i was in high school?) - its really good.

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