Mr. Freeman turns off the wheel and grabs a piece of chalk without washing his hands. “SOUL,” he writes on the board. The clay streaks the word like dried blood. “This is where you can find your soul, if you dare. Where you can touch that part of you that you’ve never dared look at before. Do not come here and ask me to show you how to draw a face. Ask me to help you find the wind.” (10)
His name is Mr. “Freeman.” In a story about a girl who feels decidedly trapped or enslaved by her past and silenced by her status as an outcast, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak isn’t merely about a traumatized fourteen year-old rape survivor, Melinda Sordino, finding her voice. It’s about her finding her soul—her animating life force (nephesh = soul)—and thus, becoming “free.” She will find it through the process of artistic creation, the making of a tree (of life, if you will).
Mr. Freeman, a few paragraphs earlier, has welcomed everyone to “the only class that will teach you how to survive” (10). But by the next page he is promising that art can help you learn to “breathe” (11); to breathe is to live and to fail to breathe is to die. He doesn’t want them to learn how to draw faces. He wants to help them find the wind.
Soul. Breath. Wind. In Genesis 1:1-2 we are told that in the beginning God created the heavens and earth, and that the ruah (which means “breath,” “wind,” “spirit,”) of God hovers over the waters. In Genesis as well, it is the breath of God that gives life to dust and clay, both of the animals and those who bear the image of God, human beings.
Mr. Freeman’s dirty hands pick up dusty chalk and write “soul” on a chalkboard that drips with wet clay streaks resembling blood. The biblical imagery here piles up, not by way of allegorical parallel, but through a series of associations that invite the careful reader to take notice. Soul, clay, blood, and even chalk (dust). The teacher who will refuse to tell his students how to draw a face will instead offer to help them find the “ruah”—the wind—the very “Spirit of God.” And he suggests that this wind can be found by becoming a creator, by making art. And his name suggests the liberating power of artistic creation.
Freeman laments on that first day of class that his freshmen have already had their imaginations and creativity—defining attributes of the creator whose image Genesis tells us they bear—beaten out of them. He gives them all a word, and our narrator draws “tree,” which has powerful Christian resonance, from the tree of life and tree of knowledge to Calvary’s tree. He tosses them balls of clay (for crying out loud!!) and welcomes them to the journey (12), inviting them to begin creating.
All this in a chapter called “Sanctuary”—not merely a place of safety (a sanctuary is a safe haven), but in this case, a “holy place” or “temple.” It will be little surprise to us as readers of the novel that the speechless Melinda will likely find her voice in a novel called Speak, but what we might want to be on the lookout for is whether or not she finds much more than this—if Mr. Freeman’s sanctuary can help her find the “wind” and teach her to “breathe” and give her a soul.
- Am I talking crap here or do you think the author, in a book for teens, is aware of the many biblical and theological associations evident in this short chapter she calls “Sanctuary”?
- Does making art—creating things and using our imaginations—help us to survive? Does artistic creation help the silenced to speak? Does reflecting God’s image by creating good things help us find the “wind” (God’s spirit)? Give us souls?