In the preface to the chapter, Trevor Noah explains that apartheid is full of “fatal flaws,” mainly its illogic: for instance, Chinese people are classified as “black,” but Japanese people are considered “white” because the South African governments wants to import Japanese products and stay on good terms with the Japanese government. Imagine a policeman trying to figure out if an Asian person is on the right beach or not!
Noah again points to the fundamental difference between racism and reality; no matter how hard it tries, the apartheid system can never fully separate people because real people do not fit cleanly into socially constructed racial categories. The fact that Chinese and Japanese people end up in opposite categories shows that these categories are actually constructed to serve the government’s own self-interest rather than based in any distinguishable biological reality.
Trevor is something of a nightmare child: he reads endlessly, eats “like a pig” (and always gets seconds in Soweto), and needs “constant stimulation and activity”; he frustrates nannies and teachers, despite his “good manners.” Patricia takes to playing fetch with him, like a dog. He plays pranks at school and is “endlessly fascinated by” fire and knives. One day, he burns off his eyebrows and part of his hair while combining the gunpowder from a bunch of small fireworks. He thinks of this as a creative tendency, not a destructive one—even though he manages to break pretty much every rule set up for him.
It is remarkable that Patricia puts up with Trevor’s antics (rather than pushing him away, like her family did with her by sending her to the homelands). But it is also curious that Trevor thinks of his pyromania as constructive, because this shows that it in some way fulfills his mother’s attempts to help him think for himself and pursue his own creativity. He breaks rules not only because he is defiant, but also because he is curious about why those rules exist in the first place.
Patricia has some useful tactics for getting Trevor to fall in line. One day, he wants a toffee apple at the grocery store, so she sends him running for it when they are about to reach the checkout aisle. When he returns, he gives it to her, but she pretends not to be his mother, and the cashier tells him off. Crying, Trevor drops the apple and catches up to Patricia in the car. Eventually, when Trevor proves “quicker in an argument,” his mother starts writing him letters and he replies in kind, having learned the art of formal letter-writing while visiting her at the office. Whenever they are on the brink of a verbal fight, she says, “Ah-ah-ah. No. You have to write a letter.”
Patricia’s tactics are clever and creative ways to teach Trevor lessons: the episode with the toffee apple reminds him about people’s prejudices (the cashier’s prejudices led him to think Patricia and Trevor could not possibly be related) and the way white strangers will treat people who look like him. The letters are a way of furthering his education and teaching him to resolve conflicts through thoughtful deliberation rather than argument.
As for all the other kids Trevor knows, “ass-whooping” is still the standard punishment for anything major. Unfortunately for Patricia, Trevor is incredibly fast, but she still hits him “on the fly” when she can manage. Yet he knows that this came “from a place of love,” never from “rage or anger.” Trevor’s Catholic school also uses corporal punishment, but he finds the principal’s spankings so weak that he starts laughing in the middle of one, which leads the principal to send him to a psychologist. In fact, the school sends Trevor to a psychologist three times, but all of them insist that “there’s nothing wrong with this kid,” who is, in his words, “just creative and independent and full of energy.”
Trevor recognizes that his mother is only draconian about punishing him because she wants to impart her wisdom, and for him this is the distinguishing factor between love and violence. The fact that Trevor is “creative and independent and full of energy” might actually be why his school thinks there is something “wrong with” him psychologically: even though it is a relatively comfortable private school, Maryvale is more interested in preserving order than fostering independent thought.
Trevor also refuses to follow rules that do not make sense. For instance, he is not allowed to take the communion at mass (grape juice and a cracker) because he is not Catholic. He finds this strange, since it implies that “Jesus would not be allowed to have the body and blood of Jesus,” seeing as Jesus was Jewish, not Roman Catholic. So one day, Trevor drinks all the grape juice and eats all the crackers before mass—during confession, another student tells a priest, who tells the administration (but, Trevor insists, breaks the rules of confession by doing so). So he gets sent to the psychologist for a second time.
Trevor sees the contradictions between the school’s concrete rules (about not taking communion because he is not Catholic) and the principles to which they are supposed to more basically adhere (confession is private, and Jesus should be able to save even non-Catholics). He interprets the rules for himself, so he sees the people who set them as crazy (just as they see him as crazy).
The third psychologist visit is after Trevor brings a knife to school in sixth grade, as a way of deterring his bully from beating him up. The principal asks “whether you really want to be at Maryvale next year”—implying that Trevor needs “to shape up”—and Trevor simply says that he does not want to be there. His mother does not mind—she has since left her job and lost his scholarship, and she generally sides with Trevor in his conflicts with the school. Clearly, “Catholic school is not the place to be creative and independent”; like apartheid, it is based on a bunch of illogical rules. Patricia broke apartheid’s rules and Trevor broke the school’s; she teaches him “to challenge authority and question the system,” except when it comes to God and the Bible. And of course, this leads him to challenge her, too.
Trevor circumvents the apparent point of the principal’s declarations by taking him literally (just as he circumvents the school rules by interpreting the school’s religion literally). Patricia is okay with him leaving the school because it shows that he has internalized her message about thinking for himself and refusing to let authority constrain him; he has learned to think despite school, not because of it.
Patricia starts dating Abel when Trevor is about six years old. Abel is renting out a white family’s garage, where Patricia and Trevor often come stay (since it’s closer to work and school). Trevor plays with the family’s black maid’s son—one day, Trevor shows the boy how to burn his name into a piece of wood by focusing light with a magnifying glass. They go for a snack, leaving the magnifying glass and a box of matches in the servants’ quarters, which are full of wood and straw. They manage to lock themselves out and burn down the whole shed, and then the whole house—and the maid’s son tells the family it was Trevor’s fault. The white family has insurance, but they do kick Abel out, so he moves in with Trevor and Patricia.
Trevor crosses a line, and he clearly knows it, realizing that his curiosity is as destructive as it is creative. Importantly, the white family’s insurance saves them from the kind of setback that would completely derail a black family’s life. This emphasizes how inequality is based on knowledge and institutions (like banking and credit) in addition to differences in material wealth.
Patricia is too shocked to discipline Trevor, and he gets a “notorious” reputation in his family. His two cousins, who are “supergood kids,” cannot understand him. Like his mother, Trevor is excellent at “forget[ting] the pain in life” and insists on continuing to try new things, no matter what.