In Andy Mulligan’s high-paced thriller Trash, the protagonists are three young, uneducated children named Raphael, Gardo, and Rat. The boys survive by scavenging on a landfill and they manage to outwit everyone in their story, ranging from highly-educated volunteers at a charity school to an entire police force under the control of a corrupt vice-president named Senator Zapanta. Though the boys have little formal education and Rat is illiterate, they’ve learned to get by on their wits. The boys’ smart thinking enables them to make it through their struggles alive and to keep Zapanta’s stolen fortune out of the hands of the society’s corrupt elite. Mulligan thus shows that people should not underestimate poor, uneducated members of society—like the “trash boys” of his story—because intelligence and education don’t always go hand-in-hand, and there is immeasurable worth in every individual’s life experience. The ability of such people to survive under such challenging living conditions is itself a testament to their potential.
Despite the boys’ lack of formal education, Mulligan emphasizes their quick thinking (acquired from life on the streets) which keeps them one step ahead of the city’s powerful police force. When Raphael is being interrogated by the police, he’s able to think up a lie on the spot—about finding money folded in an electricity bill—that keeps the bag the police want out of their hands. Raphael recalls details about what electricity bills look like in the moment, despite having only seen them in the trash. Mulligan thus demonstrates how street smarts can sometimes be more useful than a formal education, as this type of intelligence enables Raphael to “think fast” and “fight for [his] life” when dealing with a corrupt, violence police force. Similarly, Rat (who is both illiterate and the youngest protagonist) realizes almost instinctively that the police are about to raid the boys’ room and jumps into action to lead the boys to safety across the city’s rooftops. Raphael says, “Rat has been chased so often, that he must have had extra senses.” Again, Mulligan demonstrates how skills acquired from lived experienced such as intuition, courage, and resourcefulness shouldn’t be underestimated, as these are what allow Rat to save his friends and himself. Raphael even says that Rat has “extra senses,” suggesting that Rat’s lack of education (and his subsequent reliance on his wits and instincts) isn’t a flaw—it actually puts him at an advantage over others.
Beyond the “trash boys,” Mulligan emphasizes that practical real-world experience is valuable for everyone and it even rivals formal education. Olivia (a well-educated British volunteer) feels that her real-life exposure to Behala and Colva Prison teach her things about life that university cannot, including insights about the importance of money, the value of relationships, and human nature. She reflects, “it occurred to me that to see the world of Behala, and now a jail—perhaps it would teach me more than I’d ever found at university.” Through Olivia’s reflections, Mulligan demonstrates that life experience can be more valuable than formal studies because such experiences can teach people about what the world “revolves around” on the ground in ways that can’t be gleaned from a textbook.
Mulligan also argues that wealthier individuals tend to unfairly underestimate the aptitude of the poor—who have acquired practical skills from living on the street and surviving hardship—by showing how the novel’s wealthy characters are often duped by the poor, uneducated ones. For example, a servant named José Angelico steals Zapanta’s fortune from under Zapanta’s nose—Zapanta reveals information about his private vault’s combination, assuming that José Angelico is poor, uneducated, and therefore “too stupid to memorize numbers.” Mulligan reinforces his claim about the high aptitude of poor, uneducated people by demonstrating how Behala’s residents are highly enterprising despite their lack of formal education, as they’ve organized their scavenging into an efficient “business.” For instance, a large team of the landfill’s children work together to separate straws and cups from fast food trash, which enables them to earn food money more efficiently than if they had to fend for themselves. Their professional acumen in organizing and distributing labor is derived from their lived experience on the landfill; this showcases how much potential they have despite having no access to education. Mulligan thus argues that it is a mistake for those wealthy enough to afford formal education to overlook the intelligence, capabilities, and potential of those who lack access to formal education. Life itself, he suggests, can sometimes be the most powerful teacher.
Intelligence, Education, and Street Smarts ThemeTracker
Intelligence, Education, and Street Smarts Quotes in Trash
We get the fast food too, and that’s a little business in itself. It doesn’t come out near me and Gardo, it goes down the far end, and about a hundred kids sort out the straws, the cups, and the chicken bones. Everything turned, cleaned and bagged up – cycled down to the weighers, weighed and sold.
On the other hand, I did not want Raphael hiding and drawing attention that way, so that’s why I kept him right in the middle of it.
Little Jun had me wrapped around his little finger in about two days, and I was forever giving him little bits of food, and little bits of money. I don’t know how else a boy like that survives.