Authors: Trevor Noah
My mother used to tell me, “I chose to have you because I wanted something to love and something that would love me unconditionally in return—and then I gave birth to the most selfish piece of shit on earth and all it ever did was cry and eat and shit and say, ‘Me, me, me, me me.’ ”
My mom thought having a child was going to be like having a partner, but every child is born the center of its own universe, incapable of understanding the world beyond its own wants and needs, and I was no different. I was a voracious kid. I consumed boxes of books and wanted more, more, more. I ate like a pig. The way I ate I should have been obese. At a certain point the family thought I had worms. Whenever I went to my cousins’ house for the holidays, my mom would drop me off with a bag of tomatoes, onions, and potatoes and a large sack of cornmeal. That was her way of preempting any complaints about my visit. At my gran’s house I always got seconds, which none of the other kids got. My grandmother would give me the pot and say, “Finish it.” If you didn’t want to wash the dishes, you called Trevor. They called me the rubbish bin of the family. I ate and ate and ate.
I was hyperactive, too. I craved constant stimulation and activity. When I walked down the sidewalk as a toddler, if you didn’t have my arm in a death grip, I was off, running full-speed toward the traffic. I loved to be chased. I thought it was a game. The old grannies my mom hired to look after me while she was at work? I would leave them in tears. My mom would come home and they’d be crying. “I quit. I can’t do this. Your son is a tyrant.” It was the same with my schoolteachers, with Sunday school teachers. If you weren’t engaging me, you were in trouble. I wasn’t a shit to people. I wasn’t whiny and spoiled. I had good manners. I was just high-energy and knew what I wanted to do.
My mom used to take me to the park so she could run me to death to burn off the energy. She’d take a Frisbee and throw it, and I’d run and catch it and bring it back. Over and over and over. Sometimes she’d throw a tennis ball. Black people’s dogs don’t play fetch; you don’t throw anything to a black person’s dog unless it’s food. So it was only when I started spending time in parks with white people and their pets that I realized my mom was training me like a dog.
Anytime my extra energy wasn’t burned off, it would find its way into general naughtiness and misbehavior. I prided myself on being the ultimate prankster. Every teacher at school used overhead projectors to put their notes up on the wall during class. One day I went around and took the magnifying glass out of every projector in every classroom. Another time I emptied a fire extinguisher into the school piano, because I knew we were going to have a performance at assembly the next day. The pianist sat down and played the first note and,
all this foam exploded out of the piano.
The two things I loved most were fire and knives. I was endlessly fascinated by them. Knives were just cool. I collected them from pawnshops and garage sales: flick knives, butterfly knives, the Rambo knife, the Crocodile Dundee knife. Fire was the ultimate, though. I loved fire and I especially loved fireworks. We celebrated Guy Fawkes Day in November, and every year my mom would buy us a ton of fireworks, like a mini-arsenal. I realized that I could take the gunpowder out of all the fireworks and create one massive firework of my own. One afternoon I was doing precisely that, goofing around with my cousin and filling an empty plant pot with a huge pile of gunpowder, when I got distracted by some Black Cat firecrackers. The cool thing you could do with a Black Cat was, instead of lighting it to make it explode, you could break it in half and light it and it would turn into a mini-flamethrower. I stopped midway through building my gunpowder pile to play with the Black Cats and somehow dropped a match into the pile. The whole thing exploded, throwing a massive ball of flame up in my face. Mlungisi screamed, and my mom came running into the yard in a panic.
I played it cool, even though I could still feel the heat of the fireball on my face. “Oh, nothing. Nothing happened.”
“Were you playing with fire?!”
She shook her head. “You know what? I would beat you, but Jesus has already exposed your lies.”
“Go to the bathroom and look at yourself.”
I went to the toilet and looked in the mirror. My eyebrows were gone and the front inch or so of my hair was completely burned off.
From an adult’s point of view, I was destructive and out of control, but as a child I didn’t think of it that way. I never wanted to destroy. I wanted to create. I wasn’t burning my eyebrows. I was creating fire. I wasn’t breaking overhead projectors. I was creating chaos, to see how people reacted.
And I couldn’t help it. There’s a condition kids suffer from, a compulsive disorder that makes them do things they themselves don’t understand. You can tell a child, “Whatever you do, don’t draw on the wall. You can draw on this paper. You can draw in this book. You can draw on any surface you want. But do not draw or write or color on the wall.” The child will look you dead in the eye and say, “Got it.” Ten minutes later the child is drawing on the wall. You start screaming. “Why the hell are you drawing on the wall?!” The child looks at you, and he genuinely has no idea why he drew on the wall. As a kid, I remember having that feeling all the time. Every time I got punished, as my mom was whooping my ass, I’d be thinking,
Why did I just do that? I knew not to do that. She told me not to do that.
Then once the hiding was over I’d say to myself,
I’m going to be so good from here on. I’m never ever going to do a bad thing in my life ever ever ever ever ever—and to remember not to do anything bad, let me write something on the wall to remind myself…
and then I would pick up a crayon and get straight back into it, and I never understood why.
My relationship with my mom was like the relationship between a cop and a criminal in the movies—the relentless detective and the devious mastermind she’s determined to catch. They’re bitter rivals, but, damn, they respect the hell out of each other, and somehow they even grow to like each other. Sometimes my mom would catch me, but she was usually one step behind, and she was always giving me the eye.
Someday, kid. Someday I’m going to catch you and put you away for the rest of your life
. Then I would give her a nod in return.
Have a good evening, Officer
. That was my whole childhood.
My mom was forever trying to rein me in. Over the years, her tactics grew more and more sophisticated. Where I had youth and energy on my side, she had cunning, and she figured out different ways to keep me in line. One Sunday we were at the shops and there was a big display of toffee apples. I loved toffee apples, and I kept nagging her the whole way through the shop. “
can I have a toffee apple?
can I have a toffee apple?
can I have a toffee apple?
can I have a toffee apple?”
Finally, once we had our groceries and my mom was heading to the front to pay, I succeeded in wearing her down. “Fine,” she said. “Go and get a toffee apple.” I ran, got a toffee apple, came back, and put it on the counter at the checkout.
“Add this toffee apple, please,” I said.
The cashier looked at me skeptically. “Wait your turn, boy. I’m still helping this lady.”
“No,” I said. “She’s buying it for me.”
My mother turned to me. “Who’s buying it for you?”
“You’re buying it for me.”
“No, no. Why doesn’t your mother buy it for you?”
“What? My mother? You are my mother.”
“I’m your mother? No, I’m not your mother. Where’s your mother?”
I was so confused. “
The cashier looked at her, looked back at me, looked at her again. She shrugged, like,
I have no idea what that kid’s talking about
. Then she looked at me like she’d never seen me before in her life.
“Are you lost, little boy? Where’s your mother?”
“Yeah,” the cashier said. “Where’s your mother?”
I pointed at my mother. “She’s my mother.”
“What? She can’t be your mother, boy. She’s black. Can’t you see?”
My mom shook her head. “Poor little colored boy lost his mother. What a shame.”
I panicked. Was I crazy? Is she not my mother? I started bawling. “
She shrugged again. “So sad. I hope he finds his mother.”
The cashier nodded. She paid him, took our groceries, and walked out of the shop. I dropped the toffee apple, ran out behind her in tears, and caught up to her at the car. She turned around, laughing hysterically, like she’d really got me good.
“Why are you crying?” she asked.
“Because you said you weren’t my mother. Why did you say you weren’t my mother?”
“Because you wouldn’t shut up about the toffee apple. Now get in the car. Let’s go.”
By the time I was seven or eight, I was too smart to be tricked, so she changed tactics. Our life turned into a courtroom drama with two lawyers constantly debating over loopholes and technicalities. My mom was smart and had a sharp tongue, but I was quicker in an argument. She’d get flustered because she couldn’t keep up. So she started writing me letters. That way she could make her points and there could be no verbal sparring back and forth. If I had chores to do, I’d come home to find an envelope slipped under the door, like from the landlord.
“Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.”
There are certain things I expect from you as my child and as a young man. You need to clean your room. You need to keep the house clean. You need to look after your school uniform. Please, my child, I ask you. Respect my rules so that I may also respect you. I ask you now, please go and do the dishes and do the weeds in the garden.
I would do my chores, and if I had anything to say I would write back. Because my mom was a secretary and I spent hours at her office every day after school, I’d learned a great deal about business correspondence. I was extremely proud of my letter-writing abilities.
To Whom It May Concern:
I have received your correspondence earlier. I am delighted to say that I am ahead of schedule on the dishes and I will continue to wash them in an hour or so. Please note that the garden is wet and so I cannot do the weeds at this time, but please be assured this task will be completed by the end of the weekend. Also, I completely agree with what you are saying with regard to my respect levels and I will maintain my room to a satisfactory standard.
Those were the polite letters. If we were having a real, full-on argument or if I’d gotten in trouble at school, I’d find more accusatory missives waiting for me when I got home.
“Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him.”
Your school marks this term have been very disappointing, and your behavior in class continues to be disruptive and disrespectful. It is clear from your actions that you do not respect me. You do not respect your teachers. Learn to respect the women in your life. The way you treat me and the way you treat your teachers will be the way you treat other women in the world. Learn to buck that trend now and you will be a better man because of it. Because of your behavior I am grounding you for one week. There will be no television and no videogames.
I, of course, would find this punishment completely unfair. I’d take the letter and confront her.
“Can I speak to you about this?”
“No. If you want to reply, you have to write a letter.”
I’d go to my room, get out my pen and paper, sit at my little desk, and go after her arguments one by one.