Melinda Sordino begins her first day at Merryweather High School in Syracuse, New York apprehensive and skeptical, and pessimistic. On the bus, she attempts to avoid the other students, who immediately begin to alienate and bully her. She notes that the same peers who are tormenting her used to be her friends in middle school; by the time the bus is full, she is the only student sitting alone.
Melinda fears the idea of growing up, as well as the rejection of her peers. For her, something as ordinary as a school bus is torturous, filled with former friends and acquaintances who now go out of their way to reject her. The source of this change in her life is at this point unclear to the reader, which suggests the way that it is also unknown to her peers and repressed by Melinda.
As she enters school, Melinda comments that the school has changed the mascot from Trojans to Blue Devils because “Trojans” is too reminiscent of condoms. She then names the various cliques in the ninth grade as the students file in for an assembly, such as “Jocks, Country Clubbers, Idiot Savants, [and] Cheerleaders.” She adds, however, that she is an outcast with no one to sit with. She relates how she spent the last month of the summer watching cartoons by herself, rather than hanging out with her friends or even answering the phone. Without trendy clothes, an “in” hairdo, or any friends to speak of, she is entirely alone.
Laurie Halse Anderson immediately establishes Melinda’s loneliness, but also her perceptiveness. The fact that she is an outcast makes her unhappy, but also allows her to see the truths about high school life that her peers miss. The subplot of the school mascot, meanwhile, strikes a humorous note in an otherwise unhappy section. It also reveals that, beneath her depression and apathy, Melinda is witty and perceptive.
Melinda sees her old friends, with whom she used to be in a clique called the Plain Janes: Nicole the jock; Ivy the artist; and Rachel, Melinda’s former best friend (the fifth member of their group, Jessica, has moved to Nevada). Over the summer, the group split up, and all the girls except for Melinda have joined new cliques. Behind her, she hears Rachel laughing at her. Melinda recalls how Rachel taught her how to swim, “understood” Melinda’s difficult relationship with her parents, and didn’t make fun of Melinda’s childish bedroom. She wishes she could “tell” Rachel “what really happened," but does not. As their eyes meet, Rachel mouths, “I hate you.””
Melinda’s unhappiness goes beyond the usual high school angst; her friends have rejected and abandoned her. For Melinda, the move to high school—a classic symbol of growing up—has brought about only pain and isolation. At the same time, however, she hates her bedroom for being too immature. Caught between adulthood and childhood, Melinda feels that she has no place in life.
At a school assembly, after hesitating too long as she looks for somewhere to sit, Melinda is reprimanded by Mr. Neck, her future social studies teacher. Another isolated student, who introduces herself as “Heather from Ohio” (but whom Melinda describes as a “wounded zebra”), asks to sit with her. Melinda doesn’t answer.
Although Melinda is lonely, she shies away from the idea of friendship or connection. When Heather acts friendly to Melinda, she immediately reacts with suspicion.
As the assembly goes on, Melinda catalogues the top ten lies that teachers tell high school students, such as “We are here to help you,” “Guidance counselors are always available to listen,” and “These will be the years you look back on fondly.” When it ends, she cannot find her first class (biology), and ends up getting a demerit. She wryly comments that there are “699 days and 7 class periods” left until she graduates from highschool.
Melinda is incredibly cynical, but also smart and funny. She hides her intelligence, however, beneath her silence and defensiveness. She feels that the authority figures at her school are hypocritical, promising to help when they are in fact clueless about what really goes on in a high schooler’s life.