On my walk yesterday morning I passed a young man, probably an African immigrant, starting his day. He’s leaving his sleeping spot, carrying lots of blankets and a water bottle. We pass each other quietly. I wonder if he recognizes me from other walks, other cool Tucson mornings.
Should I speak to him? At least say good morning? I want to know his story, where he came from in his colorful cap, why he’s in Tucson. How did he come to be homeless?
I say nothing.
Recently, I read “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson. What a terrific YA novel (known as young adult but really for young teens)! Having been out of the children’s book loop since I closed Oz Books in 1997, “Speak” was a revelation.
It immediately took me back to high school — as a student, teacher and parent.
“I am outcast,” Melinda, the teen protagonist, tells readers. All because she called the police at a summer party. Kids got in trouble for drinking.
She was raped.
But Melinda couldn’t speak about it, even though all her friends summarily abandoned her for her ratty deed.
Were they so self-absorbed that they didn’t want to know her side of the story? Her former friends played the blame game while she suffered alone.
She took art. Mr. Freeman has a “big old grasshopper body, like a stiltwalking circus guy. Nose like a credit card sunk between his eyes. But he smiles at us as we file into class…Welcome to the only class that will teach you how to survive, he says. Welcome to art.”
Mr. Freeman is the sanest person she knows, Melinda tells us.
Isn’t it wonderful when somebody, maybe the most unexpected person, steps forward to help? Melinda finally speaks about the rape because she wants to protect her former best friend who starts to date “Andy Beast.”
I feel a little guilty for not speaking to the homeless man who passes me on the streets of Tucson. I hope he’s okay.
Reading “Speak” I was whisked back to high school — both as a student and as a teacher. The dialogue, both inner and outer rang true. Anderson is a talented writer who’s able to convey the horror of her character’s experience, yet also give us plenty of kindness and even humor.