Out of My Mind

Out of My Mind Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5 – 9


Melody’s narration returns to the present. For five years she has attended Spaulding Street Elementary School, which she travels to on a wheelchair-lift-equipped “special needs” bus. Melody enjoys watching the physically active “regular” children play, but is dismayed that they never ask if any of Melody’s developmentally disabled classmates would like to play. Melody had at first been excited to go to school, but over time she grew disappointed when her special-needs class remained at the same learning level, always in room H-5, but with a different teacher each year.

Every Christmas, Melody and her classmates decorate Sydney, a Styrofoam snowman which Melody thinks is stupid and tacky. Melody describes her classmates. Ashley is tiny and dressed all in pink, with muscles so tight that it’s nearly impossible for her to communicate. Carl is able to move his hands, write his name, and stab Sydney, whom he hates as much as Melody does. Carl often soils himself, but there are aides on-hand to change him and lower him back into his extra-wide wheelchair. Maria has Down syndrome and loves Christmas; she talks constantly and gives Melody hugs. Gloria, presumably autistic, clutches herself and rocks back and forth. Willy Williams is in constant motion as he yodels, whistles, shrieks, and grunts; he is an expert at memorizing obscure baseball statistics. Jill, who was once in a car accident, uses a walker and her foot drags; her eyes are blank as a mannequin. Freddy loves to zoom around in his electric chair. Melody describes the Plexiglas board connected to her chair. She uses it as a tray to eat on and as a communication board by pointing to glued-on phrases.

Melody discusses Mrs. Violet Valencia, her next-door neighbor. Characterized as tall and outgoing, Mrs. V used to work with Melody’s mother as a nurse. On the ward, Mrs. V would wear bright flowing dresses that she made herself, claiming that the colors boosted sick children’s spirits. To help Melody’s working parents, Mrs. V takes care of Melody for a couple of hours every day after Melody comes home from school. Melody remembers how Mrs. V would take her out of her chair, put her on the floor, and tell her to turn over; at first unused to this treatment, Melody resisted. But Mrs. V knew Melody could understand her every word. Eventually, Melody learned to roll her body over and crawl. Mrs. V would reward Melody’s efforts with sugary treats, including soda, which her parents never let her drink. With Mrs. V’s help, Melody learns how to protect herself when she falls from her chair.

While watching TV, Melody and Mrs. V see Stephen Hawking, a famous physicist whose ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) means he can’t walk or talk. Mrs. V recognizes that Melody may be similar to Stephen Hawking, and together they set about making Melody’s Plexiglas vocabulary board more varied with colors, images, words, and phrases. Melody has full dexterity in her thumbs, which she uses to construct sentences by pointing to words on her communication board. Over time, Mrs. V helps Melody learn to read increasingly difficult words. Melody attempts to explain her musical synesthesia by pointing to the color blue when Mrs. V plays classical music; Melody realizes that not even Mrs. V is capable of understanding everything that goes on in Melody’s head.

On a hot and sticky day, Mrs. V shows Melody what a nimbus storm cloud is. Having understood that Melody enjoys the first few drops of rain, they continue to sit outside in the warm downpour—an experience that makes Melody laugh with glee. That night, Melody dreams about chocolate clouds.

Melody can do anything in her dreams, and so it always a disappointment for her to wake up to her life of limitations. At school, the difficulty involved in caring for Melody and her classmates means that aides and teachers come and go. In second grade, Melody’s teacher Mrs. Tracy figures out that Melody likes stories, and so supplies her with audiobooks. After quizzing Melody to test her reading comprehension, Mrs. Tracy moves her up to increasingly difficult books.

Melody is satisfied with her books, but the system unravels in third grade when Mrs. Billups ignores Melody’s and the other children’s progress reports and restarts their education at a rudimentary level. Every morning, Melody is forced to suffer through children’s songs, listening to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on repeat. Melody wonders if Mrs. Billups would teach regular third-graders such juvenile songs, and assumes not. When she can no longer stand relearning the alphabet, Melody has one of her tornado explosions. In the aftermath, Melody’s mother comes to the school and confronts Mrs. Tracy for ignoring the student records and for not understanding the cause of Melody’s warranted outbursts. In response, Mrs. Billups insists that the students have not only physical but mental impairments. Melody’s mother hands Mrs. Billups a five-dollar bill and then snaps the children’s CD in half, calling the music cruel and unusual punishment. Soon after, Mrs. Billups quits her job.

At the fair, Melody’s father wins her a goldfish named Ollie. Melody reflects that the fish, confined to his bowl, leads a worse life than she does. One day Melody is listening to country music, enjoying the citrus smells and bright colors the music evokes. Ollie races around his bowl, dives down, then shoots out of the water. Melody sees Ollie is attempting to breathe and tries to save him by tipping the bowl over to keep the fish wet. Melody’s mother enters the room and misunderstands, thinking that Melody pulled the bowl over. It is too late to save the fish.

Melody’s next pet is a golden retriever puppy her father brings home in a box. By pointing to the butterscotch candies on the table, Melody succeeds in telling her parents she would like to name the dog Butterscotch. The dog sleeps at the foot of Melody’s bed and is well-trained. While watching The Wizard of Oz, Melody falls out of her chair; Butterscotch alerts Melody’s mother by barking, and butting against the door. After Melody is back in the chair, Butterscotch curls up at Melody’s feet, ready to soften the landing in case Melody falls again.

When she is eight years old, Melody notices that her mother smells like new soap and has softer, warmer skin. Melody correctly predicts that this change in texture and scent means her mother is pregnant. Worried the new child will have birth defects, Melody’s mother swallows green vitamins, eats fresh fruit, and touches her stomach while mumbling prayers. Melody is concerned that her parents will finally take Dr. Hugely’s advice and put Melody in a care facility. Melody overhears her parents discussing the possibility that the next child will “be messed up too.” Melody’s mother feels that she is responsible for Melody’s cerebral palsy, and Melody is pained by the fact she is unable to tell her mother that it isn’t her fault.

Despite the parents’ concerns, Melody’s sister Penny is born happy and healthy. Melody is pleased that Penny is able-bodied, though she admits that it isn’t easy to watch a baby move and speak more freely than her. With two children in the house, Melody’s parents become overwhelmed; in the morning, they argue while attempting to feed and clothe the kids, though they always hug and take a deep breath before leaving the house.


The theme of social isolation and the motif of ableism are further developed when Melody enters school only to find that the special needs class is segregated from the “regular kids.” Melody’s intelligence is insulted by the monotony and repetition of the activities in H-5, since the activities are designed to accommodate special needs students whose abilities differ greatly from Melody’s; decorating Sydney the snowman is exciting for students such as Maria, but is demeaning to Melody.

Contrasted with the adversity and misunderstanding Melody confronts at school and in the world, Mrs. Valencia has an intuitive sense of Melody’s true abilities. Rather than coddle and condescend to Melody as everyone else does, Mrs. V practices tough love as she teaches Melody to crawl and to protect herself should she fall. Mrs. V has higher expectations of Melody than most people do, and these higher expectations lead Melody to achieve more than she would have otherwise been given the opportunity to achieve. The humanizing manner with which Mrs. V treats Melody presents an alternate and preferable approach to interacting with people with disabilities. Despite their connection and understanding, Melody remains isolated from Mrs. V when she is unable to gesture to a concept as complex as synesthesia.

Melody compares the freedom she has in dreams to the confinement she experiences in reality. Over time, her homeroom teachers recognize her ability to understand language and narrative, supplying her with audiobooks she can escape into. However, Melody’s third grade teacher restarts the class at rudimentary instruction. The fact that Melody’s homeroom teacher changes each year hints at a broader issue within the education system: the difficulty of teaching a diverse group of special needs students, particularly when there is a lack of funding and extra assistance, leads to high turnover in the job.

The episode in which Melody’s goldfish Ollie escapes his bowl illustrates Melody’s own frustration with being unable to escape her mind. To Melody, the fishbowl represents the physical confines of her mind and body, and Ollie represents her consciousness, which longs to escape. Melody’s mother misunderstands Melody’s effort to keep the fish alive as her having acted out irrationally; this foreshadows the climactic scene when Melody’s mother misunderstands Melody’s outburst of warning in the car as arbitrary hostility.

Beyond providing loving company to Melody, Butterscotch is able to alert Melody’s mother when Melody has fallen from her chair. The inclusion of Butterscotch speaks to the inherent empathy and intelligence of animals that can act as companions to people with disabilities.

Melody’s mother’s pregnancy—as opposed to being a straightforwardly joyous occasion—evokes complex and ambivalent feelings for everyone in the family. Melody’s isolation is complicated by the fact that she overhears her parents’ concerns about having another “messed up” child. Rather than feeling animosity toward her parents, Melody recognizes herself to be a burden; we learn that even Melody’s parents, despite their love for Melody, are not immune to ableist bias. Even when the new baby is born healthy, all is not happy: another child to care for compounds the stress that Melody’s parents must contend with on a daily basis. The author does not shy away from the realities of raising a child with disabilities, choosing instead to represent Melody’s parents as realistically flawed in their desire to have an able-bodied second child.