It is Melinda Sordino’s first day of ninth grade at Merryweather High School and she is the first one on the school bus. After analyzing bus seating etiquette—“wastecases” sit in the back, too many people sit in the middle, and young children sit in the front—Melinda decides to take a seat near the front of the bus, figuring that it is her best chance of seeing her friends as they board. However, as the bus picks up more students, both friend and stranger alike deliberately ignore Melinda. By the time the bus has reached its final stop, Melinda is the only person seated alone.
At Merryweather High, ninth graders are herded into the cafeteria for a freshman orientation. Melinda notices janitors repainting the school sign. Merryweather’s mascot, due to complaints of lewdness, has just changed from the Trojans to the Devils. As she enters the cafeteria, Melinda describes the various cliques the grade has broken up into. Her friend group from last year has disintegrated, and each member has joined a separate clique. Melinda, however, remains alone.
Not having anyone to sit with, Melinda stands alone in the aisle. A teacher with a whistle around his neck approaches her. Melinda observes that his neck is much larger than his head, and accordingly nicknames him Mr. Neck. Mr. Neck insists she sit down, so she grabs a seat next to another lonely girl, “Heather from Ohio.”
Melinda is certain that high school will be horrible. She has Mr. Neck for Social Studies, and a strange English teacher with stringy, orange and black hair, who she labels “Hairwoman.” During lunch, Melinda scans the cafeteria for someone to sit with. Just as she notices Heather from Ohio sitting alone in the corner, a basketball player accidentally spills his potatoes on her. Embarrassed, she attempts to flee from the cafeteria, but is stopped by Mr. Neck who issues her a demerit.
Melinda luckily finds some relief in art class. The teacher, Mr. Freeman, is eccentric but exciting. He explains that the students will be responsible for a yearlong art project in which they will portray a single object through different artistic mediums. The goal of the assigment is to imbue the object with emotion and “soul.” The students will select their object by pulling a scrap of paper from a broken globe. Melinda picks the word “tree.”
By the end of the first two weeks, Melinda has become friends with Heather from Ohio, although their friendship is rather one-sided—Heather talks while Melinda quietly listens. In fact, much of Melinda’s life is quiet. At home, she communicates with her parents through notes left on the kitchen counter. Melinda’s mom manages Effert’s, a clothing store downtown that keeps her very busy. Melinda feels that nothing at home really represents who she is. Even her bedroom seems foreign to her. While lying in bed one night, Melinda peers at herself in the mirror. Disturbed by her chewed up lips, Melinda turns the mirror so that it is facing the wall.
Gym class poses another problem for Melinda. Both Heather and Nicole, one of Melinda’s former friends, are in her gym class. Heather and Nicole could not be more different. Heather refuses to change in front of the other girls, and wears her gym clothes under her regular clothes. Nicole, on the other hand, is incredibly athletic and strips down to the nude in the locker room. Melinda believes that the class would be easier if Nicole would acknowledge her, especially because Nicole is generally very nice and friendly, so her distance is especially obvious.
Rachel, Melinda’s former best friend, also ignores her. She has changed her name to Rachelle and spends her time with the foreign exchange students. Melinda runs into her in the bathroom and is shocked by her new persona. Rachel/Rachelle now smokes candy cigarettes and wears dark make up. After the bathroom encounter with Rachel, Melinda decides that she needs a new friend. She does not, however, want a real friend—just someone to make her look less lonely, without requiring real intimacy.
Heather, the obvious person to fill this role, has grander plans for Melinda. Eager to be a part of the social scene, Heather is intent on the two of them joining a club with the “right people.” Melinda dismisses Heather’s ideas and goes home to nap.
From the opening of the novel, Melinda presents herself as a sarcastic and observant person. She examines bus seating etiquette, lists mocking names for the various cliques, and finds the mascot change from Trojans to Devils amusingly moronic. She provides the readers with a humorous list of "The First Ten Lies They Tell You in High School." Because of her strong narrative voice, the reader understands that Melinda Sordino is not a weak, unintelligent person. However, Melinda also paints herself as introverted. She openly states that she does not believe in speaking. She is "Outcast" and has no desire to actively change that. Her way of coping with her loneliness is to mock those around her. Unfortunately, she finds it difficult to mock her former friends. To cope with their rejection and mean comments, Melinda resorts to biting her lips.
Melinda also exhibits a dislike of authority early on in the novel. She gives her teachers nicknames, such as Mr. Neck and Hairwoman, and critiques them harshly. She will not, however, actually talk to them. The only teacher she speaks positively of is Mr. Freeman, a man who encourages creativity and emotion, not rigid observance of the rules. Melinda thus shows a distaste for strong and forceful authority and warms much more quickly to a safe, gentle personality.
It is also significant that Melinda draws the word "tree" from the globe. The tree will come to be representative of Melinda and her growth. As a plant, the tree is a symbol of life and regeneration, but often needs to have diseased limbs removed to continue to survive, grow, and thrive. Melinda’s struggle to create a tree over the year will parallel her struggle to regain her strength and voice.
Melinda's bathroom encounter with Rachel illustrates her attention to identity changes. Rachel has changed her name to Rachelle and has started smoking candy cigarettes. Though Melinda clearly thinks Rachel’s blatant identity change is ridiculous, she is still hurt by it. Her reluctance to find a permanent friend shows her belief that identity, and consequently friendships, are only ever temporary.
At this early stage, we do not understand what has made Melinda an outcast, but it is clear that it is something that she finds painful even to think about. Her forthright narrative voice makes it clear that this is particularly significant, since she processes everything else with her trademark intelligent and cutting voice. Her handling of Rachel mouthing that she hates Melinda serves as a smaller example of the greater avoidance Melinda will exhibit over the year – “It was ugly, but it’s over, and I’m not going to think about it. My lip bleeds a little” (5). The injuries to her mouth are tied to her intentions to not speak about the things that hurt her most, not even in her own mind.