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Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, chronicles the struggles of thirteen-year-old Melinda Sordino after she is a raped by at a party the summer before her freshman year of high school by another student. Melinda tells her story in first person narrative. She describes events within the framework of the four marking periods of the school year.
In the opening part of Speak, “First Marking Period,” Melinda begins high school, and we learn that former friends now hate her. She experiences humiliation in the cafeteria and Mr. Neck, a social studies teacher, further embarrasses her by giving her demerits on the first day of school. Ostracized by her former friends, she befriends Heather, a new girl at the school. Heather seeks popularity, and she badgers Melinda to join various clubs. Rachel, Melinda’s ex-best friend, hasn’t tried to find out the truth about what really happened to Melinda that night at the party over the summer.
Melinda describes her classes, activities, and thoughts. Her project in Mr. Freeman’s art class is to create a work of art based on a “tree,” which is the object named on the piece of paper she randomly chooses. In biology, Melinda thinks that David Petrakis, her lab partner, might be cute without the braces. And in algebra, when Mr. Stetman has Rachel come to the board to help Melinda with a problem, Melinda is humiliated.
Melinda often skips class using stolen late passes and doesn’t complete her homework. She finds refuge at school in a vacant janitor’s closet, which she turns into her “burrow.” At the Homecoming Rally, students bully her for being the one who called the cops that night at the party.
At home, Melinda and her parents communicate with each other by leaving notes on the refrigerator. In her bedroom, she no longer wants to look in the mirror and puts it in the back of her closet. Toward the end of the marking period, Melinda’s parents hear from the school about her missing work, and she remains silent while they berate her for failing. Through it all, Melinda sees “IT” everywhere, the nightmare from which she cannot awaken.
In “Second Marking Period,” school is a grind for Melinda. At her parents’ insistence, she stays after to finish her homework, but she goes to her burrow and naps instead. In social studies, David Petrakis stands up against Mr. Neck’s racist rant about immigration. In biology, she finds that a seed within the apple she has cut is already growing. Heather gives her an early Christmas present, and Melinda decides she’ll give Heather a friendship necklace.
On Christmas, Melinda nearly tells her parents what happened that night last summer but can’t. Winter break is miserable. Her parents keep her busy working for them, and she is relieved when school starts again.
In gym class, Melinda impresses the basketball coaches with skills but has no interest in being on the team. She reluctantly helps Heather in her attempts to become an initiated member of a do-good club. And in biology, when she and David dissect a frog, she faints when preparing to slice it open.
Melinda’s parents receive another call from the guidance counselor about her grades. After their verbal assault, Melinda goes to her room and uses an open paper clip to scrape at her wrist.
“IT”, who we learn is Andy Evans, harasses Melinda in the cafeteria, and she runs to the bathroom to vomit. She has yet to tell anyone, even the reader, about what happened that summer night.
In “Third Marking Period,” Melinda continues to skip school and avoid Andy Evans. Heather ends their friendship suddenly, and later returns the friendship necklace Melinda had given her for Christmas. No one, Melinda is sure, “would like the inside girl I think I am.”
The school counselors hold another meeting with Melinda’s parents, who berate and threaten her. She refuses to talk or defend herself. She receives In-School Suspension, and IT is there. He sits next to her and blows in her ear when Mr. Neck isn’t looking.
In art class, Mr. Freeman gives Melinda a book about Picasso to help her “paralyzed” imagination. Picasso’s art inspires her, and she begins to draw. Mr. Freeman recognizes that she has a lot to say.
Melinda works to meet the expectations set for her. Yet, with “no friends in the known universe,” Melinda sits alone at lunch, wondering if everyone is talking and laughing about her.
One afternoon, after a basketball game, David Petrakis invites her to his house for pizza to celebrate the team’s one-point win. She declines, torn between getting a life, and the fact that the world is a dangerous place.
At last, Melinda reveals that she was attacked at a party last summer, though she does not use the word “rape.” At this point, we (the readers) are the only ones besides Melinda who know what happened.
In “Fourth Marking Period,” Melinda takes her ex-friend Ivy’s advice and tries drawing a tree instead of carving one from linoleum block. She also learns that Rachel is dating Andy Evans. Compelled to do something, she writes a note to Rachel warning her about Andy. In the note, she admits for the first time (but without divulging her identity), that she was raped.
Springtime arrives, and Melinda finds solace working in the garden. She and David plan a protest in social studies class over an oral report she is supposed to present, and she stands up to Heather by refusing to help her decorate for the Senior Prom. She writes on a stall in the bathroom, “Guys to Stay Away From: Andy Evans.” Andy Evans continues to bully her.
Melinda feels compelled to tell Rachel the truth about Andy and what happened that night. But, when Rachel learns that Andy Evans was Melinda’s attacker, she accuses Melinda of being jealous and calls her a “twisted little freak.” Later, Ivy brings Melinda into the bathroom stall. Other girls have added words like “creep” and “bastard” under Andy Evan’s name. Seeing that, Melinda feels like she can fly.
Melinda realizes she doesn’t need her burrow anymore. When she is clearing her items out of the closet, Andy Evans barges in, attacks Melinda, and tries to rape her again. She finds her voice and screams “NNNOOO!!” He does not back off, so Melinda breaks a mirror, takes a shard of glass, and holds it to his neck. “I said no,” she tells him. People who had heard her scream run for help.
With hours left in the school year, Melinda finds herself a sort of hero. She finishes her tree project, receiving an A+ from Mr. Freeman.