Authors: Trevor Noah
To Whom It May Concern:
First of all, this has been a particularly tough time in school, and for you to say that my marks are bad is extremely unfair, especially considering the fact that you yourself were not very good in school and I am, after all, a product of yours, and so in part you are to blame because if you were not good in school, why would I be good in school because genetically we are the same. Gran always talks about how naughty you were, so obviously my naughtiness comes from you, so I don’t think it is right or just for you to say any of this.
I’d bring her the letter and stand there while she read it. Invariably she’d tear it up and throw it in the dustbin. “Rubbish! This is rubbish!” Then she’d start to launch into me and I’d say, “Ah-ah-ah. No. You have to write a letter.” Then I’d go to my room and wait for her reply. This sometimes went back and forth for days.
The letter writing was for minor disputes. For major infractions, my mom went with the ass-whooping. Like most black South African parents, when it came to discipline my mom was old school. If I pushed her too far, she’d go for the belt or switch. That’s just how it was in those days. Pretty much all of my friends had it the same.
My mom would have given me proper sit-down hidings if I’d given her the opportunity, but she could never catch me. My gran called me “Springbok,” after the second-fastest land mammal on earth, the deer that the cheetah hunts. My mom had to become a guerrilla fighter. She got her licks in where she could, her belt or maybe a shoe, administered on the fly.
One thing I respected about my mom was that she never left me in any doubt as to why I was receiving the hiding. It wasn’t rage or anger. It was discipline from a place of love. My mom was on her own with a crazy child. I destroyed pianos. I shat on floors. I would screw up, she’d beat the shit out of me and give me time to cry, and then she’d pop back into my room with a big smile and go, “Are you ready for dinner? We need to hurry and eat if we want to watch
. Are you coming?”
“What? What kind of psychopath are you? You just beat me!”
“Yes. Because you did something wrong. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you anymore.”
“Look, did you or did you not do something wrong?”
“And then? I hit you. And now that’s over. So why sit there and cry? It’s time for
. William Shatner is waiting. Are you coming or not?”
When it came to discipline, Catholic school was no joke. Whenever I got into trouble with the nuns at Maryvale they’d rap me on the knuckles with the edge of a metal ruler. For cursing they’d wash my mouth out with soap. For serious offenses I’d get sent to the principal’s office. Only the principal could give you an official hiding. You’d have to bend over and he’d hit your ass with this flat rubber thing, like the sole of a shoe.
Whenever the principal would hit me, it was like he was afraid to do it too hard. One day I was getting a hiding and I thought,
if only my mom hit me like this
, and I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. The principal was quite disturbed. “If you’re laughing while you’re getting beaten,” he said, “then something is definitely wrong with you.”
That was the first of three times the school made my mom take me to a psychologist to be evaluated. Every psychologist who examined me came back and said, “There’s nothing wrong with this kid.” I wasn’t ADD. I wasn’t a sociopath. I was just creative and independent and full of energy. The therapists did give me a series of tests, and they came to the conclusion that I was either going to make an excellent criminal or be very good at catching criminals, because I could always find loopholes in the law. Whenever I thought a rule wasn’t logical, I’d find my way around it.
The rules about communion at Friday mass, for example, made absolutely no sense. We’d be in there for an hour of kneeling, standing, sitting, kneeling, standing, sitting, kneeling, standing, sitting, and by the end of it I’d be starving, but I was never allowed to take communion, because I wasn’t Catholic. The other kids could eat Jesus’s body and drink Jesus’s blood, but I couldn’t. And Jesus’s blood was grape juice. I loved grape juice. Grape juice and crackers—what more could a kid want? And they wouldn’t let me have any. I’d argue with the nuns and the priest all the time.
“Only Catholics can eat Jesus’s body and drink Jesus’s blood, right?”
“But Jesus wasn’t Catholic.”
“Jesus was Jewish.”
“So you’re telling me that if Jesus walked into your church right now, Jesus would not be allowed to have the body and blood of Jesus?”
They never had a satisfactory reply.
One morning before mass I decided,
I’m going to get me some Jesus blood and Jesus body
. I snuck behind the altar and I drank the entire bottle of grape juice and I ate the entire bag of Eucharist to make up for all the other times that I couldn’t.
In my mind, I wasn’t breaking the rules, because the rules didn’t make any sense. And I got caught only because they broke their own rules. Another kid ratted me out in confession, and the priest turned me in.
“No, no,” I protested. “
broken the rules. That’s confidential information. The priest isn’t supposed to repeat what you say in confession.”
They didn’t care. The school could break whatever rules it wanted. The principal laid into me.
“What kind of a sick person would eat all of Jesus’s body and drink all of Jesus’s blood?”
“A hungry person.”
I got another hiding and a second trip to the psychologist for that one. The third visit to the shrink, and the last straw, came in grade six. A kid was bullying me. He said he was going to beat me up, and I brought one of my knives to school. I wasn’t going to use it; I just wanted to have it. The school didn’t care. That was the last straw for them. I wasn’t expelled, exactly. The principal sat me down and said, “Trevor, we can expel you. You need to think hard about whether you really want to be at Maryvale next year.” I think he thought he was giving me an ultimatum that would get me to shape up. But I felt like he was offering me an out, and I took it. “No,” I told him, “I don’t want to be here.” And that was the end of Catholic school.
Funnily enough, I didn’t get into trouble with my mom when it happened. There was no ass-whooping waiting for me at home. She’d lost the bursary when she’d left her job at ICI, and paying for private school was becoming a burden. But more than that, she thought the school was overreacting. The truth is she probably took my side against Maryvale more often than not. She agreed with me 100 percent about the Eucharist thing. “Let me get this straight,” she told the principal. “You’re punishing a child because he
Jesus’s body and Jesus’s blood? Why shouldn’t he have those things? Of course he should have them.” When they made me see a therapist for laughing while the principal hit me, she told the school that was ridiculous, too.
“Ms. Noah, your son was laughing while we were hitting him.”
“Well, clearly you don’t know how to hit a kid. That’s your problem, not mine. Trevor’s never laughed when I’ve hit him, I can tell you.”
That was the weird and kind of amazing thing about my mom. If she agreed with me that a rule was stupid, she wouldn’t punish me for breaking it. Both she and the psychologists agreed that the school was the one with the problem, not me. Catholic school is not the place to be creative and independent.
Catholic school is similar to apartheid in that it’s ruthlessly authoritarian, and its authority rests on a bunch of rules that don’t make any sense. My mother grew up with these rules and she questioned them. When they didn’t hold up, she simply went around them. The only authority my mother recognized was God’s. God is love and the Bible is truth—everything else was up for debate. She taught me to challenge authority and question the system. The only way it backfired on her was that I constantly challenged and questioned her.
When I was seven years old, my mother had been dating her new boyfriend, Abel, for a year maybe, but at that point I was too young to know who they were to each other. It was just “Hey, that’s mom’s friend who’s around a lot.” I liked Abel; he was a really nice guy.
As a black person back then, if you wanted to live in the suburbs you’d have to find a white family renting out their servants’ quarters or sometimes their garage, which was what Abel had done. He lived in a neighborhood called Orange Grove in a white family’s garage, which he’d turned into a cottage-type thing with a hot plate and a bed. Sometimes he’d come and sleep at our house, and sometimes we’d go stay with him. Staying in a garage when we owned our own house wasn’t ideal, but Orange Grove was close to my school and my mom’s work so it had its benefits.
This white family also had a black maid who lived in the servants’ quarters in the backyard, and I’d play with her son whenever we stayed there. At that age my love of fire was in full bloom. One afternoon everyone was at work—my mom and Abel and both of the white parents—and the kid and I were playing together while his mom was inside the house cleaning. One thing I loved doing at the time was using a magnifying glass to burn my name into pieces of wood. You had to aim the lens and get the focus just right and then you got the flame and then you moved it slowly and you could burn shapes and letters and patterns. I was fascinated by it.
That afternoon I was teaching this kid how to do it. We were inside the servants’ quarters, which was really more of a toolshed added on to the back of the house, full of wooden ladders, buckets of old paint, turpentine. I had a box of matches with me, too—all my usual fire-making tools. We were sitting on an old mattress that they used to sleep on the floor, basically a sack stuffed with dried straw. The sun was beaming in through the window, and I was showing the kid how to burn his name into a piece of plywood.
At one point we took a break to go get a snack. I set the magnifying glass and the matches on the mattress and we left. When we came back a few minutes later we found the shed had one of those doors that self-locks from the inside. We couldn’t get back in without going to get his mother, so we decided to run around and play in the yard. After a while I noticed smoke coming out of the cracks in the window frame. I ran over and looked inside. A small fire was burning in the middle of the straw mattress where we’d left the matches and the magnifying glass. We ran and called the maid. She came, but she didn’t know what to do. The door was locked, and before we could figure out how to get into the shed the whole thing caught—the mattress, the ladders, the paint, the turpentine, everything.
The flames moved quickly. Soon the roof was on fire, and from there the blaze spread to the main house, and the whole thing burned and burned and burned. Smoke was billowing into the sky. A neighbor had called the fire brigade, and the sirens were on their way. Me and this kid and the maid, we ran out to the road and watched as the firemen tried to put it out, but by the time they did, it was too late. There was nothing left but a charred brick-and-mortar shell, roof gone, and gutted from the inside.
The white family came home and stood on the street, staring at the ruins of their house. They asked the maid what happened and she asked her son and the kid totally snitched. “Trevor had matches,” he said. The family said nothing to me. I don’t think they knew what to say. They were completely dumbfounded. They didn’t call the police, didn’t threaten to sue. What were they going to do, arrest a seven-year-old for arson? And we were so poor you couldn’t actually sue us for anything. Plus they had insurance, so that was the end of it.
They kicked Abel out of the garage, which I thought was hilarious because the garage, which was freestanding, was the only piece of the property left unscathed. I saw no reason for Abel to have to leave, but they made him. We packed up his stuff, put it into our car, and drove home to Eden Park; Abel basically lived with us from then on. He and my mom got into a huge fight. “Your son has burned down my life!” But there was no punishment for me that day. My mom was too much in shock. There’s naughty, and then there’s burning down a white person’s house. She didn’t know what to do.
I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I still don’t. The lawyer in me maintains that I am completely innocent. There were matches and there was a magnifying glass and there was a mattress and then, clearly, a series of unfortunate events. Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade. But everyone in my family will tell you, “Trevor burned down a house.” If people thought I was naughty before, after the fire I was notorious. One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me “Terror” instead. “Don’t leave that kid alone in your home,” he’d say. “He’ll burn it to the ground.”
My cousin Mlungisi, to this day, cannot comprehend how I survived being as naughty as I was for as long as I did, how I withstood the number of hidings that I got. Why did I keep misbehaving? How did I never learn my lesson? Both of my cousins were supergood kids. Mlungisi got maybe one hiding in his life. After that he said he never wanted to experience anything like it ever again, and from that day he always followed the rules. But I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on. You’ll have a few bruises and they’ll remind you of what happened and that’s okay. But after a while the bruises fade, and they fade for a reason—because now it’s time to get up to some shit again.