Subway Literature: Challenging the Challenge (Part Three), being my thoughts on Speak

It took me a little while to cool down after I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. This was for a couple of reasons. The first was that Speak is the kind of book that makes you stop cold in your tracks. The second is that, several weeks after reading Wesley Scroggins’ op ed piece calling Speak (among other books) filthy and verging on soft-core porn, my anger had pretty much died down. Reading Speak with his comments in the back of my head, though, made me madder than a hornet all over again. Then, of course, having said that I was going to write this as a discussion rather than as a rebuttal, I had to wait for my anger to cool off. So here I am, finally ready to write my post. Fortunately, I’m pretty sure nobody’s been waiting around for it.

Speak is narrated by Melinda, a high-school freshman who begins her first year with all of her former friends–and just about everyone else in the student body–silently hating her for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. We eventually learn that during the summer, she called the cops on a party, and her new world will not forgive her. We learn, in bits and pieces, that Melinda called the cops not to call a halt to the teenage revelry, but because she was sexually assaulted by another one of the partygoers and did the first thing she could think of: she called 911. But she did this from the house, where she was caught in the act, so instead of getting help, Melinda became the girl who busted the party. Instant outcast. Nobody but Melinda and the perpetrator know about the assault, and Melinda carries her secret in silence.

We follow Melinda’s inner monologue throughout the year, watching her withdraw into herself, refusing to speak to her parents, cutting school–in essence, turning herself into that most difficult of creatures for parents/teachers/principals/friends to deal with: a really troubled kid who won’t talk about what’s troubling her. To be fair to Melinda, nobody, nobody asks the right questions. In fact, precious few of the people around her bother to ask anything at all. Isn’t it true that human nature seems to be to ignore what isn’t waved on a flag right in front of their faces? At least when it comes to interpersonal relationships? Plus, it’s so much easier to chalk weird teenage behavior up to the fact that…well, teens are just weird.

You might think that following Melinda’s train of thought as she becomes increasingly withdrawn, would be torture. Far, far from it. Melinda is a sharp, witty, ┬áhilarious. Example: her observations on her school cheerleaders (Jennie, Jen, Jenna, Ashley, Aubrey, Amber, Colleen, Kaitlin, Marcie, Donner, Blitzen, and Raven), in whose lives Melinda senses the work of a divine miracle:

There is no other explanation. How else could they sleep with the entire football team on Saturday night and be reincarnated as virginal goddesses on Monday? It’s as if they operate in two universes simultaneously. In one universe, they are gorgeous, straight-teethed, long-legged, wrapped in designer fashions, and given sports cars on their sixteenth birthdays. Teachers smile at them and grade them on the curve…In Universe #2, they throw parties wild enough to attract college students. They worship the stink of Eau de Jocque. They rent beach houses in Cancun during Spring Break and get group-rate abortions before the prom.

Okay, yes, I included that quote because Wesley Scroggins called it out specifically, implying that Speak endorses group-rate abortions. I hope it’s clear there’s disapproving sarcasm meant to be read into that, folks. Back to your regularly-scheduled post now.

In a happier story, some of Melinda’s observations on high school life would be laugh-0ut-loud funny–but of course, this isn’t meant to be a laugh riot, so we are left aching for this girl who has so much to say and yet will not speak up. Because she knows full well that nobody knows what she is going through–because she hasn’t told anyone–there is no self-pity, no whining about how nobody understands. Melinda withdraws and occasionally acts out (for example, cutting class to build a sanctuary in an unused janitor’s closet) not because she wants attention, but because she feels her best mode of survival is to disappear. Until, of course, something happens that forces her hand: the Beast, the popular kid who assaulted Melinda at the party, asks Rachel, one of Melinda’s ex-closest friends, to the senior prom. Even though Rachel has done nothing but ignore her all year, Melinda doesn’t want to see anyone else hurt, and it is this that finally pushes her to find ways to break her silence and crawl out of the shell she has built, which turns out not to be as simple as finding the courage to speak up.

I could not, could not put this book down. There are books that I cannot help but talk about once I’ve read them, and when I start talking, goosebumps come up on my arms and I start sounding inarticulate. This is one of those books, which is another reason this post took me so bloody long to write. Everyone should read it. Seriously, everyone. High school students should read it–there is the message about speaking up rather than building a shell of pain, and the message about taking note of each other’s pain and asking the right questions, even if they hurt, and messages about bullying and clicquishness, and even a rather beautiful note about how important it is to support arts in our high schools. Everyone should read it. There is so, so much to learn from Melinda. And–shocker–it’s even an entertaining book to read. Melinda’s voice is so wonderful, so funny and heartbreaking and true. Her sarcasm reminded me so much of one of my cousins I found myself having to remind myself that I was reading fiction from time to time.

So now, the daughter test. I haven’t got one, but someday I might. Would I let my daughter read this? What would I want her to learn from it? Yes, I would let her read it. Melinda is entering high school, so I’m thinking even tweens might find this important reading. What would I want her to learn from it? See above. See everything above. I’d want her to learn that no one, no one should suffer in silence. I’d want her to know that sometimes parents don’t see the obvious, even though they really should, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to know. (There’s a really beautiful scene where Melinda almost tells her parents what happened to her because for Christmas they give her a sketchbook and charcoals because they have noticed her drawing. This single act of awareness brings tears to her eyes. And it brought some to mine, too.) But here’s the other thing: I think parents need to read this book, too. I think I learned as much from reading it as an adult as I would want my imaginary daughter to learn. If we want our children to speak, this is the kind of book that can help us find a common language.

As a final note, you can–and should–learn more about this book and its author at Laurie Halse Anderson’s website. One article I particularly like is this one, in which the author talks about a dedicated Twitter feed started by English teacher Paul Hankins to discuss the book’s banning.┬áSpeak loudly, friends.

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