Study Guide

Tamika "Mik" Sykes in The Orange Houses

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Tamika "Mik" Sykes

Fifteen-year-old Mik lives in the projects, doesn't have many friends, and feels like no one understands her. Sure, her mom is loving toward her, NaNa cares about her, and even Joe Knows looks out for her. But she never feels like they really get her. Sound familiar? Yeah, we've all been there.

To Hear or Not to Hear

For Mik, most of what people seem to not understand about her life has to do with her hearing. She lost most of her hearing after a bout of meningitis when she was five, and since then, has relied on outdated hearing aids. To everyone else, this is a major bummer, but to Mik, she loves the idea of shutting out the world. In fact, when she gets new hearing aids that will stay on all the time, she flips.

Why? We'll let her explain it:

It would be too much, she wanted to say. So many people making noise, so much garbage getting into my head. Folks like Shanelle, that idiot Jaekwon, dumping their nastiness on me. And the other folks, the ones crying out with complaints, trying to hitch up their problems to me, as if sharing their sadness will lighten their burdens instead of doubling them. As if I can do anything to cure their ills. Making me realize I'm powerless. I can barely get by with all that craziness blunted. Reality straight up? No thank you. Connecting to full-blown reality is tapping into full-blown insanity. (16.22)

When asked why she wouldn't want to hear, this is Mik's response. Of course it's only in her head, because she's too ashamed to vocalize any of it, but it's really telling. The word that jumps out at us the most is powerless. She feels like she's stripped of her own agency with the new hearing aids. It's not that she doesn't want to hear; it's that she wants to choose what she gets to hear, when she checks in to the world around her and when she disappears to the quiet of her own mind.

She thinks the world gets too loud, but really, we suspect she just doesn't like dealing with everything she hears. Sure, she can't hear without her hearing aids, but she uses that as an excuse to shut people out. Mik's embarrassed of her lack of hearing, plus she's worried she'll get mocked or bullied because of it. Her solution? Shut everything out, by shutting out sound.

Dream World

It seems like Mik is always living in her own fantasy world instead of in reality. She shuts everyone out because she's used to going it alone. In fact, sometimes she ventures in to the world she creates for herself: "She saw herself in her dream world. As she walked the streets they turned from ink to pavement, the penned buildings to brick and glass" (27.4). Girl has a whole city of her own in her mind.

When Fatima comes along, Mik opens up, sharing more about herself than she ever has before. She realizes that she uses her drawings as a dream world. Perhaps more importantly, though, she figures out that having friends can be really fun; she's just never experienced it before. She's been too busy blocking people off by switching her hearing aids to the off position all the time. With Fatima, though, she tries using her hearing aids, and when she does, she finds that what Fatima has to say is worth listening to.

Meaningful Mural

Together, Mik and Fatima paint a mural of the Statue of Liberty. At first, Mik thinks it's just a cool art project they did together, but later, she changes her mind. She explains:

The project Jimmi said we were working on? The most beautiful thing in the world? He meant friendship. Sister, this is a lovely country. You have peace here. One needs only a little food, a warm place to sleep and dream, and someone with whom she can share a laugh. I was most fortunate to know these three beauties. They will last forever. (43.14)

Mik finally gets it: The mural isn't about the fabulous paint job the girls did or the Statue of Liberty, although those things are cool. It's more about the friendship the girls share and that can never be erased. Even though the book ends on a sad note, it reminds us that this is a friendship that will continue long after the book ends. Mik even decides to use her new hearing aids to commit to checking into the world around her, a decision that grows directly from the richness of her interactions with Fatima. Yay.

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