Anderson set Speak in her hometown, Syracuse, New York. Although a specific date is not given, her popular culture references and jargon suggest that the novel's events occur in the late 1990s. Most of the action in Speak occurs in Melinda's mind. Readers have more access to Melinda's thoughts and perceptions regarding her actions after she was assaulted than her family, teachers, and peers. This mental setting reveals as much as Melinda is willing to face emotionally, becoming larger as she begins to accept what happened and then cope with her anger.
School is the primary setting. We first encounter Melinda as she rides the school bus on her first day in high school. The first student picked up, she strategically sits near the front in hopes of establishing eye contact with people she considers friends but remains alone because former "lab partners or gym buddies" use their eyes to "glare" and condemn her for calling the police to a party just days before. Melinda calls attention to being ignored, stating, "As we leave the last stop, I am the only person sitting alone." Entering the auditorium for freshman orientation, Melinda is aware that students are grouped in "clans" based on superficial social stereotypes and identities such as "Jocks," "Country Clubbers," and "Cheerleaders." Unwelcome in any of these cliques, Melinda is "clanless." She declares, "I have entered high school with the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude. And I don't have anyone to sit with," just like on the bus. Her school is populated with insiders and outsiders according to who fits in and who does not, but no one is as completely erased as Melinda.
Classrooms and laboratories are unfriendly spaces in which Melinda is bored by the incompetence and personal agendas of many of her teachers. She receives a demerit trying to find her first class, foreshadowing her academic decline. Melinda realizes how school bureaucrats distance themselves from students and treat them impersonally. Angry classmates viciously confront and torment Melinda verbally with name calling and by mocking and harassing her. They also kick and push her and pull her hair.
The lunchroom is a hostile area, and Melinda avoids it. She frequently eats outside the main room in a courtyard. This space also becomes unbearable because it is where Heather ends their friendship based on her dislike of Melinda's moodiness. Although Melinda resists by saying that friends help each other during difficult times, Heather returns to the Marthas who "swallow her whole and she never looks back at me. Not once." This coldness is worsened by the display of Valentine's Day hearts on the cafeteria wall which excludes Melinda.
The Merryweather In-School Suspension's (MISS) bright, white classroom has "uncomfortable chairs and a lamp that buzzes like an angry hive." Melinda and other students are expected to sit still and look at the walls. When Andy Evans, the boy who raped her, shows up, Melinda describes herself as Bunny Rabbit, fearful of the predator. The MISS room intensifies Melinda's anguish by not protecting her, and Andy menacingly blows in her ear.
Melinda tries to avoid the gymnasium and its associated assemblies, pep rallies, basketball games, and demands on her skill for shooting foul shots. Other athletic spaces, particularly the tennis court, emphasize her potential strength. Melinda hides in the bathroom where she cries and overhears conversations demeaning her. Later, though, the bathroom provides her a forum to tell people the truth she has been repressing. Melinda gains access to the teacher's lounge when she helps Heather decorate it for a Thanksgiving meeting as a probationary task for Heather's possible inclusion into the Marthas. The "small green room with dirty windows and a lingering smell of cigarettes" with a "bulletin board that hasn't been cleared off since Americans walked on the moon" disappoints Melinda and affirms her realization that faculty lack respect and authority for...
(The entire section is 3,789 words.)