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Melinda waits for the bus on her first day of high school. She worries about where she will sit when it arrives, and whether she will have to make eye contact with any of her friends.
By the time the bus arrives at school, Merryweather High—Home of the Trojans, Melinda is the only one sitting by herself. She notes that the school’s janitors are busy painting over the school’s mascot, which the school board had determined “didn’t send a strong abstinence message.” They’ve changed the name to Blue Devils.
Melinda and the other ninth-graders congregate in the auditorium where they quickly divide into their groups. Melinda, an “Outcast,” has no one to sit with. Her clan, before ninth grade, was the “Plain Janes,” but it has since divided into competing cliques. Nicole is now with the “Jocks,” and Ivy hovers between the “Suffering Artists” and the “Thespians.” Rachel Bruin, Melinda’s ex-best friend, sits behind her. Melinda wishes so badly she could tell Rachel what really happened over the summer. But Rachel mouths, “I hate you,” and Melinda bites her lip until it bleeds.
A new girl named Heather sits next to Melinda. The lights dim. What Melinda calls “the indoctrination” begins. Assembly over, Melinda gets lost finding her biology class and receives her first demerit. She’s already counting the 699 days and 7 class periods until graduation.
Melinda calls her English teacher “Hairwoman.” She has black hair, neon orange at the tips, and no face. After wasting twenty-minutes to take roll, she reviews the required reading, and explains the importance of class journals, which, she solemnly promises, she’ll never read.
Mr. Neck, the social studies teacher, also requires journals. He had seen Melinda standing alone and lost in the auditorium and had told her to “sit.” In class, he warns her, “I’ve got my eye on you,” and points her to the front row of desks.
Melinda finds her locker and heads to the cafeteria to buy lunch. She’s in line behind the “Basketball Pole,” an eight-foot senior. A few used-to-be friends sit nearby, and Melinda heads to a seat across from Heather. Basketball Pole bumps her, and mashed potatoes and gravy explode across her chest. The cafeteria bursts into laughter, and Melinda quickly leaves, running (literally) into Mr. Neck on her way out. He asks her where she’s going, and tells her he knew she’d be trouble the minute he saw her. He gives Melinda her second demerit of the day.
In Mr. Freeman’s art class, Melinda tries to make eye contact with Ivy, and wishes she could sit with her. Mr. Freeman dares the students to find their souls this year. He directs each student to draw a piece of paper from inside a hollow globe. One word will be on the paper they draw. Their year-long assignment: turn the object named on the paper into a piece of art. Melinda’s paper reads “tree.” Too easy, she thinks, and reaches to draw another one, but Mr. Freeman doesn’t let her. “You just chose your destiny, you can’t change that.”
In Spanish class, Melinda’s teacher insists she is not going to speak a word of English the whole year. The entire class is completely lost trying to interpret the teacher’s gestures and pantomimes to guess what she is saying. Finally, someone has the brilliant idea of consulting a Spanish-English dictionary.
A main theme introduced early in Speak is the importance of language and communication. Melinda uses rich figurative language to describe the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of high school: freshmen are "herded" and students fall into "clans"; loners are "wounded zebras" just waiting to be attacked by predators. Melinda's old group of friends has split up and joined "rival factions." Melinda repeatedly references the fact that she no longer belongs to a group and labels herself as “Outcast,” suggesting this is an isolated role reserved for her alone. Even though Melinda narrates from a first-person perspective, she fails to reveal why people treat her like an outcast, and her inability to communicate is frequently emphasized by her physical responses to uncomfortable situations. This omission builds mystery and introduces the central question of the novel: What happened to Melinda and why won't she speak about it?
The disconnect between teenagers and authority figures is made apparent at the beginning of Speak. Melinda’s observation that her school changed its mascot name because “Trojans” (a condom brand) doesn’t send an abstinence message indicates the lack of open dialogue about sex with teenagers and foreshadows the context of what is causing Melinda’s silence. Melinda's sarcasm and biting observations suggest that she doesn't trust the educational system to help her solve real-life problems like the ones she experiences with her friends. Melinda highlights her distrust of authority figures when she refers to school assemblies as brainwashing and creates nicknames for her teachers. Most teachers in this section are portrayed as incapable of effectively communicating with the students in varying ways: Hairwoman doesn’t speak to her class for twenty minutes; Mr. Neck incorrectly interprets Melinda’s loner behavior as that of a troublemaker and treats her accordingly; and Melinda’s Spanish teacher refuses to communicate with her class in a language they understand.
The chapter set in Mr. Freeman’s art room is titled “Sanctuary,” indicating that this space will symbolize a place of refuge in which Melinda can express herself. The art room and Mr. Freeman himself emphasize that Melinda’s silence is driven by a lack of safe people and places. In contrast to other teachers, Mr. Freeman is introduced by his real name, suggesting that she views him as a person who can be respected and trusted. Mr. Freeman's assignment for the year is significant as he directly uses the title of the novel in his instruction that students make objects that speak to every person who looks at them. The assignment also introduces the book's most symbolic image, a tree, which represents the growth Melinda will experience as she learns how to express herself.