I started reading a new book this morning at about 8 am. I finished it by 11 am. Three hours to read a 200-page book. That doesn’t happen very often for me. It has from time to time, but most books take me at least a week or so. I get distracted or hungry or tired or I just have other things to do.
I didn’t have anything to do this morning. So instead of turning on the TV and watching episodes of Parks and Recreation on Netflix while meandering through Facebook and Twitter, I decided to read. This book was recommended by my wife, who first read it several years ago but decided to read it again. Even before she finished, she told me yesterday that I needed to read it. I have a personal rule about book recommendations: when my wife says I need to read a book, I will stop whatever else I am doing and read it.
I’m glad I did.
This is not a book for fourth graders or fifth graders. It probably isn’t even a book for middle schoolers, although I could see using it with eighth graders. It is a book for every parent, every teacher, every administrator, every counselor, every aunt, every uncle, every older sibling who knows a child and knows that she or he will be going into high school. It is a book for those who notice that some children, especially when they enter high school, seem to inexplicably change and the adults who love them and want them best for them don’t know what happened or why.
It is a book for teenagers who are afraid to speak, to talk about what has happened. It is a book for those who feel trapped and don’t know how to get out. It is a book for those who don’t think anyone else understands. It is that kind of book.
Speak is the story of Melinda Sordino, a freshman at a school in Syracuse, New York, who experienced a traumatic experience a few weeks before school started. Instead of talking to her parents, her friends, anyone, she withdrew, which happens to many who experience such experiences. Her friends feel betrayed and abandon her. Her teachers are upset by her poor grades. Her parents don’t know what is going on and take their frustration out on their daughter. Melinda is as alone as you can possibly be in a building with 1,500 people. It is a tragic story, but it ends with a ray of hope.
As a teacher, this story touched me deeply. I see my young students go through wild mood swings and often never know why. I ask them, and they usually don’t say anything, not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know what to say. In my three years of full-time teaching, I have students experience the death of a parent, homelessness, abject poverty, past abuse, bullying, the loss of a best friend over a silly argument, even struggles with school work because of something so simple as poor vision. Not everything is a tragedy that will leave scars, but it is a Big Deal to them and therefore it needs to be a Big Deal to me. No judgement, no anger, no blame. Just listening, compassion, kindness, help.
I spend most of my day talking. This book is a reminder that I need to spend time listening, too. So that my students can actually speak.