Out of My Mind Summary

Sharon Draper

Out of My Mind

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Out of My Mind Summary

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Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper is a novel that takes us inside the mind of someone with cerebral palsy. The main character, Melody, is eleven years old, non-verbal, and assumed to be mentally retarded by most of the people she comes into contact with. However, because the novel is written from her first-person perspective, the reader has access to her richly intelligent inner world from the very first word of the book. The question the book explores is how Melody will be able to convey this inner world to the people around her—to communicate what she knows, how she feels, and what matters to her.

Though the present time of the novel happens when Melody is eleven, her narration flashes back to earlier moments in her life—for example, when she is diagnosed as severely disabled, when her parents enroll her in school even after she is recommended for a residential facility, and when her sister Penny is born—without disabilities. Throughout these early flashback chapters, Melody gives the reader access to her innermost thoughts and feelings, how she would “play the part” of being retarded when confronted with people, like her doctors or her teachers, who she knows will never be able to understand her or see her as more than her disability, and how even her parents, who are clearly her champions, often fail to understand her. She also conveys the complexity of her feelings about her sister, whom she loves but is also jealous of because she is able to do all the things that Melody cannot.

Melody also recounts her memories of being stranded in the “learning community” for students with disabilities at her school, how they roll on from year to year with little change or intellectual challenge. It is these memories of her life leading up to the present moment of the book that set the stage for the reader’s understanding of how important a transition being moved to an “inclusive” classroom in fifth grade is. Even so, though her fifth-grade inclusion in a “regular” classroom has given her a new kind of access to education, it also means increased exposure to her peers, many of whom do not accept her. Nor are her teachers immune to expressing their prejudice against her.

When Melody’s aide Catherine convinces Melody’s parents to get a Medi-Talker for Melody—a computerized device that allows her to speak her mind—she is finally able to communicate. Suddenly, the people around her who formerly thought of her only as “disabled” and “retarded” are forced to begin to recognize her as an intelligent person who has much to offer. She is able to compete in the Whiz-Kids tournament and lead her school’s team to victory at the regional competition.

When it’s time to travel to Washington, D.C., for the national Whiz-Kids competition, however, her team “forgets” to tell her about a change in their flight time and leave without her. Melody is understandably crushed and must grapple with the fact that even with the Medi-Talker, her classmates still see her as inherently different and less worthy. Melody is no stranger to disappointment or struggle, however, and the day after she is left behind by her teammates, she insists on going to school.

That morning is a difficult one, however, with many small annoyances that leave Melody’s mother distracted and frustrated. When her mother and Melody are in the car ready to leave, Melody realizes that her sister Penny has followed them out and is behind the car. She is unable to make her mother understand that Penny is in danger, and Penny is hit by the car. Again, Melody grapples with her complex feelings about her inability to communicate and about her “normal” sister, and she feels guilty about being unable to protect her. She is also worried that the accident will leave Penny with decreased mental capacities. As it turns out, Penny is not seriously injured.

When Melody returns to school, her teammates attempt to explain their bad behavior and give her the trophy they won at the competition. Melody accidentally breaks it by pushing it off her communications tray, symbolizing the break in their team as a whole as a result of their exclusion of Melody. The question that remains is whether the rift between them can be healed.

The novel ends where it began, with Melody continuing the struggle of being heard, understood, and included. The novel as a whole deftly explores the connection between language and selfhood, between communication and acceptance. Its plot is fully resolved, but without suggesting that there any easy answers to the challenges faced by people like Melody. Moreover, the novel reminds us that we can all relate to Melody’s struggle to be understood—to be seen clearly and with compassion—and we can all see, as well, how much more difficult that struggle is when you’re a “normal” girl inside a body seen as abnormal by others.