The week passes quickly as Melody memorizes more information in preparation for the quiz team tryouts. Sometimes she spends hours alone in her room, slowly writing new phrases for her Medi-Talker. Since people often ask Melody what is wrong with her, she prepares two responses. For people who are sincerely curious, she has a phrase to explain that she has spastic bilateral quadriplegia, or cerebral palsy, which limits her body but not her mind. To people like Claire and Molly, she has another phrase: “We all have disabilities. What’s yours?”
On the Saturday before tryouts, Mrs. V, Penny, Melody, and Melody’s mother are on Mrs. V’s porch, watching migratory birds land—a sign of coming spring. Mrs. V asks Melody what she would do if she could fly like a bird; Melody says she is afraid it would feel so good that she would just fly away. Penny makes a run for the driveway when Melody’s father returns early from work. Butterscotch barks, Melody’s mother scoops Penny up, and they all agree that Penny is quite the escape artist. Melody’s father tells Melody that she’s going to ace the tryout. Melody knows her family believes in her abilities, but she worries the rest of the world does not.
On Monday, the quiz team tryouts are held after school in Mr. Dimming’s room. Melody is so nervous that she spills a bowl of tomato soup onto her blouse. After school, Melody is still so nervous that she sets her chair to manual and has Catherine wheel her in. Rose is not as friendly as usual, and is surprised to learn that Melody is trying out. Claire says she can’t be on the team because she is from “the retard class.” Melody is angry, but chooses to remain focused. Mr. Dimming enters and frowns slightly when he sees Melody. Addressing Catherine, Mr. Dimming says he doesn’t think it’s appropriate for Melody to participate; the test is very difficult, and he worries her feelings will be hurt. Catherine reminds him that, by law, Melody cannot be excluded. Rose shouts her encouragement to Melody, and a few other kids clap in support. Claire claims Catherine is going to help with Melody’s answers, but Catherine leaves the room, saying that Melody will record her answers and print them out.
Before the quiz commences, Claire raises her hand again to suggest that Melody has answers stored in her computer. After the 100-question quiz is over, Mr. Dimming waits for the students’ parents to pick up their children. Melody is the last student left. Mr. Dimming tells her that he will announce the team members tomorrow, based on the highest eight scores. He reiterates that he doesn’t want her to be disappointed if she doesn’t make the team. Melody feels self-conscious about the tomato soup stain on her shirt and the drool hanging from her mouth.
The next morning, Melody is so nervous that she asks to be taken the bathroom twice. She is embarrassed by the process, which requires another person to lift her onto the seat, hold her in place, and then wipe her clean. By law, classrooms aides must wear plastic gloves, in case Melody has an infection or disease.
In inclusion class, Melody listens to her classmates discuss the prospect of making the team and going to the Whiz Kids final, which will be broadcast on national television. In history, Mr. Dimming draws out the suspense as he announces that Connor, Rose, and Claire have made the team. Melody compares her excitement to earthquake tremors as Mr. Dimming announces that he had been wrong to doubt her: not only has Melody made the team, she answered every single question correctly. Claire protests that Melody’s inclusion will mean their team will “look weird.” Melody spasms and shrieks with excitement, prompting Claire and Molly to mimic her movements. Melody asks Catherine to rush her out of the room: Melody would like to find a hole and hide in it.
The next two weeks move quickly as Melody trains with Mr. Dimming and the quiz team. She feels she is not quite integrated into the team, since she is unable to shout out answers to questions. However, on tougher questions that stump others, Melody is able to take the time to type out her answers; she correctly identifies “hexadactylism” as the presence of a sixth finger or toe. One day Rose’s mother orders pizza for the group. Melody watches the others rush over to the warm, spicy-smelling food. Elena offers to grab Melody a slice, but Melody claims not to be hungry. Melody is in fact just as hungry as the others, but without Catherine or her mother to feed her, she is unable to eat. That evening, her mother offers to take her to Pizza Hut, but Melody shakes her head.
On the day of the competition, Melody and Mrs. V shiver in the early March air, discussing how the competition will take place at a TV studio downtown. Mrs. V says there may be reporters at the event who will want to speak to her. Melody doesn’t understand why they would want to know about her, and Mrs. V tells her that she is a good human-interest story—Spaulding Street Elementary’s very own Stephen Hawking.
Melody’s mother picks her up from school and gives her macaroni and apple sauce to eat; Melody is pleased that the food won’t stain her clothes. Instead of the electric wheelchair, Melody is in her manual chair, since it is easier for her mother to lift out of the car on her own. Catherine meets them inside as they are taking a tour of the TV studio where the quiz will be filmed. Paul, the stage manager, proudly explains how he has set up multiple choice answer buttons for Melody to press. The setup is the perfect height for Melody’s chair. Paul confides that his son, Rusty, is in a wheelchair. The other kids arrive, nervous to be on TV. Melody hears Claire tell Molly, who is an alternate for the team, that she should be on the stage in Melody’s place. Melody chooses not to let their negativity distract her.
The hours Melody dedicates to training are evidence of her determination to prove herself to the world and gain recognition for her intelligence by succeeding in the quiz. The fact that she also painstakingly programs comebacks to demeaning questions shows her need to armor herself against prejudice. The motif of Penny attempting to escape from the house foreshadows the book’s climactic scene.
When it comes time to try out for the quiz, the class’s low expectations of Melody are on display. The prejudice ranges from Claire overtly suggesting that Melody is from “the retard class” to the subtlety of Rose’s surprise and Mr. Dimming’s frown. The class’s doubt of Melody’s intelligence is such that her care worker must leave the room for the test to allay their suspicion that Melody is cheating.
After the test, Mr. Dimming continues to respond to Melody with condescending attitude. But rather than judge him, she judges herself by imagining how she looks through his eyes, speculating that he must not think her intelligent because of the stain on her shirt and the drool coming from her mouth. Her ability to put herself in Mr. Dimming’s shoes suggests that the eleven-year-old Melody has a greater capacity for empathy than her adult teacher.
When Melody makes the quiz team, her excitement causes her to spasm and shriek. Since the outburst resembles a seizure and is therefore ambiguous to others, Melody’s classmates are unable to share in her expression of joy. This isolation leads to immediate feelings of shame and embarrassment, undermining the positivity of the moment. Melody’s sense of exclusion during a would-be positive moment is further developed when she can’t indulge in eating pizza with the rest of her teammates.
On the day of the competition, Melody’s confusion when Mrs. V tells her that people may want to interview her demonstrates how Melody doesn’t think of herself as any different from other smart kids. The low expectations that most people have of people with cerebral palsy determines that Melody is considered a novelty that people find touching and the media would like to exploit to satisfy its viewership. This is an example of apparently positive treatment that nonetheless perpetuates bias against people with disabilities.
Melody is surprised that the TV studio has made accommodations by adapting the quiz button system to suit the height of her chair. The stage manager proudly reveals that his son is also physically disabled, though nowhere near as brilliant as Melody. The moment encapsulates a complex exchange: though Melody appreciates the stage manager’s consideration, the special attention is the result of the stage manager seeing a commonality between her and his son—thus she is still being treated as “special.”