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Study Guide: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson - BookNotes

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Note: The author does not use traditional chapter numbers or section numbers in this novel. They are each given a name. For the purpose of this study guide, we have assigned chapter and part numbers, but please note that they do not appear in the original text.


CHAPTER 1 - Welcome to Merryweather High


This chapter begins with Melinda Sordino’s first day of high school and she has a stomachache. She fears where to sit on the bus and indicates she’s unsure whether any of her friends will talk to her or not. She ends up being the only person sitting alone, even though she’s the first pickup of the day. Someone behind her shoots a breakfast wrapper at her head. As they pull up to the school, she sees the janitors painting over the signboard for the school. Melinda observes that calling the school “The Home of the Trojans” doesn’t send a strong message of abstinence.

Ninth graders are herded into the auditorium and Melinda notes that they all fall into clans like Jocks, Country Clubbers, Idiot Savants, Cheerleaders, and other cliques to which teenagers seem to need to belong. She tells us she spent the month of August doing nothing and going nowhere. “I have entered high school with the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude. And I don’t have anyone to sit with. I am Outcast.” The clan she belonged to the year before, the Plain Janes, has splintered and been absorbed by other groups. She mentions three friends of the year before: Nicole, Ivy and Jessica, who has moved away. Her best friend was Rachel Bruin, who now sits behind Melinda laughing at her and mouthing the words, “I hate you.” Melinda bites her lips so as not to think about it.

She is the only one left standing when Mr. Neck, the social studies teacher, enters the auditorium and orders her to sit. She describes him as a predator with a gray jock buzz cut and a whistle around a neck thicker than his head. She finds a seat beside “another wounded zebra” who says she is “Heather from Ohio.” She is new to the district. Melinda thinks to herself that there are ten lies they tell you in high school, the first being, “We are here to help you.” The other nine are equally sarcastic:


1. We are here to help you.
2. You will have enough time to get to your class before] the bell rings.]
3. The dress code will be enforced.
4. No smoking is allowed on school grounds.
5. Our football team will win the championship this year.
6. We expect more of you here.
7. Guidance counselors are always available to listen.
8. Your schedule was created with your needs in mind.
9. Your locker combination is private.
10. These will be the years you look back on fondly. After the assembly for the freshmen, Melinda is late to class, because she can’t find the biology room. She receives her first demerit and thinks there are only 699 days and seven class periods until graduation


The reader is quickly introduced to the narrator of the story who seems intelligent, creative, and deeply sad. There is no doubt that something happened in August before her freshman year in high school that left her friendless and outcast. She mentions having friends during her eighth grade year, but now they refuse to associate with her and even tell her that they hate her. She is a keen observer of all the bad parts about high school and reserves her sarcasm for those things that are the most ridiculous, like changing the name of the school mascot to avoid any sexual references by the students. She also has little use for teachers as evidenced by her description of Mr. Neck (not really his name, but one by which we will know him for the rest of the story). He is a “predator,“ so we can assume that he will be a thorn in her side before the story is complete.

Melinda does make a friend of sorts: Heather from Ohio, who has “at least five grand worth of orthodontia, but has great shoes.” Melinda’s list of the ten lies they tell you in high school is representative of her self-proclaimed bad attitude, but also reflects the despair she feels as she enters this new world. Something has gone seriously wrong in Melinda’s life. She agonizes for high school to be over.

CHAPTER 2 - Our Teachers Are the Best


Melinda’s second commentary on a teacher concerns her English teacher whom she christens Hairwoman, because her hair is black from her part to her ears and then neon orange to the frizzy ends. Melinda explains that Hairwoman takes twenty minutes to take attendance, because she won’t look at the students. The rest of the period is spent with her standing at the board, her back to the class, discussing the required reading and their journals. Once again, she is scheduled for American History for the ninth time in nine years. She sarcastically observes that they never get past The Industrial Revolution and that they only made it to World War I once. “Who knew there had been a war with the whole world?” Her social studies teacher is Mr. Neck who remembers how he had to order her to sit in the auditorium and now warns her, “I got my eyes on you.”


Melinda takes this opportunity to describe two of her teachers, Hairwoman and Mr. Neck. She doesn’t call them by their actual names, perhaps to reflect how little she respects them or perhaps because she is too wounded to allow herself to feel any kind of admiration for anyone. It’s easier to point out their shortcomings than to identify with them in any way.

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Clapsaddle, Diane. "TheBestNotes on Speak". . 10 June 2008