Whale Talk Summary
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T.J Jones, birth name 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 jacket is 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.