Synopsis:

Whale_Talk_by_Chris_Crutcher.jpg

The Tao Jones, is one of only a handful of people of color in his small Washington town. His biological mother abandoned him when she got heavily into drugs, and as a result, T.J. grew up with a lot of rage issues. With the help of his adopted parents, his mom is a prosecutor and his father a Guardian ad Litem for the state, and Georgia, his therapist, he’s been able to outgrow most of that. There is, however, still one thing that makes his blood roil: bullies.


T.J. is a gifted athlete (having qualified for the Junior Olympics in swimming when he was 13) who shuns high school sports because of their association with jocks and bullies. However, when T.J.’s favorite teacher, Mr. Simet, convinces T.J. to help start a swim team for the school, he recognizes an opportunity to strike back at the school’s jocks, particularly a star linebacker and bully named Mike Barbour. After securing some very limited pool space at All Night Fitness, (they are forced to spend most of their workout time outside of the water) T.J. sets out to create his misfit team, recruiting exclusively social rejects. He starts with Chris Coughlin, a developmentally disabled kid with a natural stroke and grace in the water who could easily become a Special Olympics champion. Other outcasts begin to join up, embracing the opportunity to be a part of a team for once in their lives. Joining T.J., Chris, and Mr. Simet on the newly formed mermen squad are: Andy Mott, a crude, quiet guy with a prosthetic leg, Simon DeLong, all three-hundred pounds of him, Jackie Craig, an almost mute kid with nondescript features, Dan Hole, a geek with a knack for superfluous and multi-syllable verbiage, and Tay-Roy, a bodybuilder with no actual swimming experience. Together, they form the Cutter High School boy’s swimming team.

As the season progresses, the team grows closer and closer together. Long road trips to swim meets become group therapy sessions in which T.J. learns what makes his seemingly bizarre companions tick. The swimmers feel as if they belong to something and they continue to cultivate this feeling of solidarity. T.J. also explains the idea behind whale talk, the book’s namesake, as a metaphor for how humans often fail to communicate their feelings. Whales always unleash their cries, which travel hundreds or even thousands of miles, without editing or second guessing. It is pure, unfiltered emotion. T.J. continues to elaborate more on his plan to strike back at the jocks of Cutter High. If everything works out he plans to have all of his teammates in letter jackets by the season’s end. This will not be an easy task because the letter jacketis Cutter High’s proudest symbol of athletic achievement. To see a group of social rejects like Coughlin, DeLong, Mott, Craig, and Tay-Roy clad in Wolverine blue and gold, well, nothing would irk Mike Barbour and his clan of jocks and bullies (who act more like lemmings than individual humans). T.J. and Mr. Simet establish a requirement for letter jackets that everyone on the team will be able to meet. All they have to do is simply better their times at every meet. While this initially seems like a very difficult standard, T.J. explains that, since the swimmers on his misfit team have virtually no swimming experience, they should have no problem bettering their times with each passing swim. The Athletic Council, fooled by T.J. and Mr. Simet’s deception, readily agree to the proposal.

Along the way to two individual state championships, T.J. never loses his sense of irony. When the Athletic Council, fearing that the merman might actually earn letter jackets, attempts to revoke the privilege, T.J. throws one of his races, thereby disqualifying himself from the Cutter blue and gold. While the team does not get the points for the thrown race, T.J. never loses sight of his true goal: organizing a team of the school’s most hopeless social rejects and helping to shape them into something great; something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. From the Arizona State University College of Liberal Arts: English Department



Quotes from Whale Talk:


"...racist thought and action says far more about the person they come from than the person they are directed at.” - T.J. Jones

--

“I walk outside and scream at the top of my lungs, and it maybe travels two blocks. A whale unleashes his cry, and it travels hundreds or even thousands of miles. Every whale in the ocean will at one time or another run into that song. And I figure whales probably don't edit. If they think it, they say it...Whale talk is the truth, and in a very short period of time, if you're a whale, you know exactly what it is to be you.” - John Paul Jones

--

“Nothing exists without its opposite.” - T.J. Jones

--

“...the Magnificent Seven consisted of one swimmer of color, a representative from each extreme of the educational spectrum, a muscle man, a giant, a chameleon, and a one-legged psychopath. When I envision us walking seven abreast through the halls of Cutter High, decked out in the sacred blue and gold, my heart swells.” - T.J. Jones

--

"He knew that we take what the universe gives us, and we either get the most out of it or we don't, but in the end we all go out the same way." John Paul Jones



For Teachers:

Themes:

• Overcoming obstacles

• Discrimination

• Social Tolerance

• Effects of Racism

• Child Abuse

Group or Individual Projects:

  • Research Taoism and write a brief summary of what you learn. How is Taoism important to the novel? The Taoism Information Page can be found at http://www.vl-site.org/taoism/index.html

  • Research whales. Find out how whales “communicate.” Why is this information important in this book? (There are many web sites on how whales communicate. Click on http://www.buzzle.com/articles/how-do-whales-communicate-with-each-other.html to find out about interspecies communication.)

  • Research white supremacist groups and write a brief summary of what you learn.

  • Be nice to someone in your school who often takes the brunt of cruel pranks. Record your actions and responses for several days in a journal.

  • Go on the internet and find out about Chris Crutcher. Share your information with the class.

  • Choose your favorite passage in the book. Then draw a “snapshot” of that passage. Share your passage and drawing with the class and explain why the passage was meaningful to you.

  • Design a T-shirt for T.J., Mike Barbour, Chris Coughlin, Rich Marshall, Oliver Van Zandt, Simon DeLong, Jackie Craig, Andy Mott or Tay Roy Kibble. Be prepared to discuss how the T-shirt reveals what the character is all about, and what ultimately the book is about.

  • Design a book cover for Whale Talk.

  • Act out one of the scenes in the book and videotape it for the class.

Discussion Questions:

  • Look carefully at your school. Observe closely the students, teachers, administrators, and staff. Who has power in your school? Who does not have power? How is the power manifested? What conclusions can you draw from your observations? (Take five days to record your observations.) Click on www.mixitup.org to review another similar activity. Click on www.tolerance.org for the home page on Teaching Tolerance.

  • List the “groups” in your school. How do you identify the groups? Is there a “hierarchy” of power or popularity in the grouping of individuals?

  • Define prejudice. Find examples of prejudice in Whale Talk. Is prejudice a problem at your school? What can you do to reduce prejudice at your school?

  • Names are important in this book. List the different names and decide how the names help to define the characters.

  • The members of the swim team are “different.” What do they learn about one another from their experiences on the team? How do they learn it? What can we learn about being “different” from this book?

  • Some of you may be offended by the language that some of the characters use in the book. Can you defend the author’s use of obscenities? Would the book have been better if the author had not used obscenities?

  • What role does athletics play in this novel? What role does athletics play in your own school? How do you feel about the importance of organized sports at school? If you could change athletics at your school, what plan would you propose?

  • Look up the word “abuse” in the dictionary. List the examples of abuse in Whale Talk. Be prepared to discuss how the different characters respond to abusive relationships. Do an internet search on domestic abuse.

  • T.J. breaks rules. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? When (if ever) is it okay to break rules? How would your school be if everyone acted as T.J. behaves?

  • List the relationships in this book: Father/Son; Mother/Son; Stranger/Friend; Husband/Wife; Friend/Friend; Friend/Foe – Be prepared to discuss who was in the relationship, provide a description of the relationship, detail how the relationship changed, and what we can learn from each of the relationships. Is there a common “element” that appears in each relationship that may help us learn how to maintain relationships with others?

Class Activities:

  • Read aloud for 15 minutes before allowing the students silent time for reading.

  • Identify examples of foreshadowing, complex characters, symbols, climax, denouement, and important images (scenes).

  • Define tragedy and comedy. Give examples of both in Whale Talk. Discuss how tragedy and comedy influence the characters and themes.

  • Short quizzes.

  • Read a passage from Whale Talk and then allow for free writing time.

  • Read a review of Whale Talk. What did you learn about the book from the review? Click on http://www.teenreads.com/reviews/0688180191.asp for a review of Whale Talk.

  • Compare and contrast the types of coaches in Whale Talk. Read Chris Crowe’s essay on coaches in YA literature at http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/fall94/Crowe.html.

Journal Suggestions:

  • Are you someone who prefers to be alone? Or are you someone who prefers to be in a group? Discuss in a short essay when and why you prefer to be alone or with others?

  • Does TJ remind you of anyone you know? If so, describe that person and tell how that person impresses you.

  • Have you ever experienced prejudice? Have you ever been bullied? Have you ever bullied someone else? If so, share the experience in your journal.

  • None of the families is perfect in Whale Talk. Describe your own family. What do you like about your family? What challenges does your family face?

  • Choose your favorite passage in the book. Discuss why it is your favorite passage.

  • Write five to ten questions you would like to ask Chris Crutcher about himself or the book.

Essay Questions:

  • Bad things happen to good people in this book. Why do bad things happen to the characters? How do the characters respond when bad things happen to them? What can we learn about making decisions from these characters’ actions? Discuss any of these related questions in a two to three-page essay. Share your first draft with a friend, then revise the essay and bring it to the teacher.

  • Defend (or criticize) the emphasis upon organized sports in your school.

  • Write a character analysis of T.J. How is he presented at the beginning of the book? Does he develop in any way? What does he learn? How does he learn it? What significance does his character development have on the reader?

  • Write a different ending for Whale Talk.

  • Write a poem about Whale Talk.

  • What problems and issues were raised in the novel that are real to you? Discuss how the author deals with these issues.

Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher – A Unit Plan

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D. Viterbo University