The First Ten Lies They Tell You in High School: A Critical Examination of the Dumb Adult Trope in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak
“1. We are here to help you,” (Anderson 5)
John Hughes’ 1985 classic, The Breakfast Club, begins with the secondary adult character of Richard Vernon— portrayed as what one would call a “hard-ass” assistant principal. He chaperones a Saturday detention for a group of clashing teen students, assigning them with the task of answering the question of “just who they think they are.” If you’re familiar with the blockbuster, you’d know that throughout the rest of the film, viewers come to learn that each student is only an outcome of the neglect, abuse, or pressure that they receive from their parents. In one of the most famous scenes of film history, all five teenagers vow to one thing: they will never become their parents. After this acknowledgement, we see the characters move past their pain, alluding to a future of acceptance and development, finally having the courage to disregard these sad excuses of adults who hinder and ignore them. These characters have since become icons of teen rebellion, recognized for their rejection of conformity. But these muses would never have achieved their status if it had not been for the less noticed trope of Young Adult culture: the Dumb Adult.
The Dumb Adult is identified as a secondary adult character— an ostensibly empty vessel who seems to possess little to no knowledge or compassion toward their troubled child. They appear to have no experience in being a teenager, and are completely oblivious to the more serious issues of the teenage character. More often than not, they offer no resolution or answer for their conflicted child— but they’re still there. In my inquiry, I hope to unravel what methodical purpose to the narrative these Dumb Adults serve—using the parental figures of Speak’s protagonist, Melinda Sordino, as the model to my observations.
Melinda is identified as our Troubled Adolescent, traumatized by rape and resorted to silence. Melinda’s resistance to communicate exemplifies the fragility of her relationships, and just how easily misunderstood adolescent behavior is analyzed. These conflicted children are prevalently littered throughout Young Adult literature, and American educators admit their traits are recognized in elementary education, so, I wondered, why are these themes and issues considered taboo? Contributing writer to Children’s Literature in Education, Jessi Snider, expresses in her article, “’Be the Tree’: Classical Literature, Art Therapy, and Transcending Trauma in Speak,” that these themes of rape, mutilation and traumatic transformation should not be difficult to teach—as they are not new and are strewn throughout classical literature. Acknowledging that Young Adult literature content is significantly influenced with the developing society, Snider argues that the impact comes not from the content but the context. She discusses Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and it’s similarity to Speak’s themes of rape and subsequent silence of women:
What students may not be able to glean about sexual assault from Titus Andronicus, they may be able to engage with critically in Speak. Rape, mutilation, and traumatic transformation, occurring at a safe distance in classical literature, is drawn into high relief when set in an adolescent world of pep rallies and football games, settings which are utterly familiar to many adult readers. Snider, 301.
Within the modern context in which Snider refers to, come all the elements and conventions of the modern adolescent, one such being: parental involvement and authority. In my paper, I reference two key scenes of the narrative– each of which portray the subsequent silence and abandonment that our Troubled Adolescent experiences. In a later passage of the novel, at Christmas, Melinda’s family sleeps in until noon. Melinda receives some presents, which she appreciates, but is taken by surprise at a certain gift: a set of drawing charcoals and a sketchbook. Her parents briefly mention that they’ve noticed she has started to draw. This sends Melinda nearly over the edge; she narrates:
’I almost tell them right then and there. Tears flood my eyes. They noticed I’ve been trying to draw. They noticed. I try to swallow the snowball in my throat. This isn’t going to be easy. I’m sure they suspect I was at the party. Maybe they even heard about me calling the cops. But I want to tell them everything as we sit there by our plastic Christmas tree while the Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer video plays.’ Anderson, 72.
Melinda is overcome with emotion at the slightest attention from her parents; she wonders if this will be the only opportunity for her to finally speak—all because they showed that they cared for just one moment. We realize, had Mr. and Mrs. Sordino shed just the slightest bit of compassion in the beginning of the novel, Melinda may very well have spoken about her rape before her silence had taken control of her lies—but then, what story would we have? We all cross our fingers and pray that these two dumb adults hang on for just a couple more seconds, but we are ultimately disappointed as Mr. and Mrs. Sordino awkwardly shuffle out of the room before Melinda can begin to cry—still, a piece of blockage in development is chipped away, as Melinda has discovered a means of communicating her pain. For the remainder of her Christmas break, Melinda goes into work with her mother and father. Her mother puts her to work in her store’s basement stockroom. Her father has her seal envelopes, which she slices her tongue on. She bleeds on a set of calendars and her father gets angry with her, making a comment that he needs professional help. Melinda ends this section of the text with this: “I am actually grateful to go back to school,” (Anderson, 74).
She comes to regret this, as her report card is distributed by mail upon her return. Her parents raise an argument at dinner, screaming at her. She describes the scene as if she had not even been apart of it, narrating:
They keep asking me questions like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ and ‘Do you think this is cute?’ How can I answer? I don’t have to. They don’t want to hear anything I have to say. Anderson, 87.
Melinda resorts to her room, where she unfolds a paper clip, and runs the sharp edge across her wrist. Only small droplets of blood are broken through the skin, but nonetheless her mother notices the scratches the next morning. What she says to her daughter is this: “’I don’t have time for this, Melinda.” We, as the audience of readers, take a second to pick our jaws off the floor. Here we have our Troubled Child doing anything, using anything, to harm herself as a cry for attention. The Dumb Adults respond to this call with, what we can metaphorically call, an answering machine with no promise of getting back. However, this is no surprise to Melinda, she explains:
She says suicide is for cowards. This is an uglynasty Momside. She bought a book about it. Tough love. Sour sugar. Barbed velvet. Silent talk. She leaves the book on the back of the toilet to educate me. She has figured out that I don’t say too much. It bugs her. Anderson, 88.
At this point in the novel, both Melinda and the reader understand that she is left to handle her rape on her own. On the last day of school, Melinda is pulling her painting and drawings from the walls of a closet when her rapist, Andy, steps inside and closes the door behind him. Enraged at the rumors that have surfaced about her rape, he attempts to attack Melinda again—this time, however, Melinda finds her voice, screaming for him to get off and fighting him with all that she has to protect herself. A team of field hockey players break the down the door of the closet to see Melinda holding a shattered piece of mirror to Andy’s neck. She steps out of the closet and comes to her own realization (as well as us, readers) that only she could break her silence and save herself.
This acknowledgement plays a major role in the understanding of the Dumb Adult’s demeanor. We come to see that a characters development relies solely on that characters agency to do so. Melinda’s transformation came through self-empowerment, and not through the pity or compassion of other characters. Should her parents have been involved any differently, Melinda’s development would not be self-proclaimed—as a true protagonist’s always is. Therefore, these Dumb Adults are purposefully employed with arrogance, in correlation to the conflict. Though they lack the compassion and complexity of a parent, they provide the difficulty to progress and in turn, the break-through in development. Through their apathy, we readers develop our own empathy. In their ignorance, our protagonist learns to fend for themselves. In a complex understanding, the Dumb Adult is significant within their own insignificance.