Trevor Noah’s Education: The Misfit Who Got Expelled

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Born a Crime" by Trevor Noah. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What was Trevor Noah’s educational experience like? Did he go to private school? Public school? Was he popular? Nerdy?

Trevor Noah attended a variety of schools and had a variety of educational experiences, not all of them academic. Learn how getting along with diverse groups of people, getting expelled from his Catholic grade school, and starting his own business as the “tuck-shop guy” contributed to his success as a comedian today.

Trevor Noah’s Education: Grade School

When apartheid ended, all-white schools opened their doors to other races. Through his mother’s job, Noah was able to attend a private, elite Catholic school with kids who were black, white, Indian, and colored. There was no sense of segregation. They wore uniforms, had the same classes and teachers, and every social group comprised different races. Trevor Noah’s education began with an unusual degree of equality.

But this existence was unrealistic. In this environment, he was sheltered from the realities of race in the real world. Noah wasn’t treated differently, so he didn’t know to feel different. His mother never forced one race or another on him, so Noah never had to choose what race he was. He never set limits on who he could be or what he should be doing based on race. But in the real world, choosing sides was required, and he was about to learn which side he would choose.

Trevor Noah: The Merry Prankster

Noah enjoyed being naughty and pulling pranks on others. Sometimes, he’d even pull pranks on his whole school. Once, he removed all the magnifying glasses from the classroom projectors. Another time, he sprayed the entire contents of a fire extinguisher in the school piano so it would explode with foam when played at an assembly. 

Small Actions and Big Consequences

Trevor Noah’s education wasn’t always a smooth experience. Noah was expelled from Catholic school for bringing a knife for protection against bullies. This wasn’t Noah’s first offense, however. Noah was frequently disciplined in Catholic school. They’d wash out his mouth with soap when he swore, and if needed, the principal would deliver a spanking. 

During one of these spankings, he started laughing because it was so weak compared to his mother’s. This event led to the school requiring him to get tested by a psychologist for the first of three times. Each time, the psychologist always came back with the same response: there’s nothing wrong with him. The consensus was that he was simply creative and clever. 

Noah didn’t care about being expelled. His mother taught him to question authority, and he did so eagerly. He saw Catholic school as a microcosm of apartheid: strictly enforced rules and authority based on conjecture. 

Noah Switches Schools

Trevor Noah’s education would have to continue somewhere else. After sixth grade, Noah changed schools, going to a government school instead. He was required to take an aptitude test and scored well enough to be placed in the advanced class. On his first day, Noah saw that all but four of the thirty kids in his class, including him, were white. This fact, in itself, was not particularly significant. But when it was time for recess, he understood how race worked in his new school. 

Once outside, he saw that there were, in fact, a lot of black kids in the school. He also noticed that the social breakdowns followed the racial divides. White kids played together. Black kids played together. And there Noah was, in the middle with no group. It was the first time he realized that people could occupy the same space and not be together. 

An Indian kid from his class took pity on Noah and befriended him. When this kid found out Noah spoke several languages, he took him around to the various black groups and had him speak, like a parlor trick. 

The black kids couldn’t believe Noah spoke their languages. They weren’t used to white or colored people knowing African languages because they were seen as inferior to English or Afrikaans. The black students wanted to know how he knew their languages, and Noah said it was because he was black—he had only ever been raised around black people. The black kids disagreed, but his knowledge of their languages made them believe he was okay

Noah realized where he belonged: with the black students. He asked the school counselor to be transferred from the advanced class to the regular class. The school tried to dissuade him, assuring him that the black kids were going to hinder his progress. He didn’t care. He wanted to be with people he understood, even if it meant being held back. 

After that day, Noah identified as black because he saw that he was culturally black. The world saw him as a colored or mixed person, but with the black kids, he could just be himself, the only person he knew how to be. 

Trevor Noah’s Education: High School

Noah started eighth grade at Sandringham High School, a school mixed with different races and run like a charter school in America. The school was large and represented every race of South Africa, serving as a sort of model of how the country at large could or should be. Again, Trevor Noah’s education was a singular one in South Africa.

Despite the diverse student body, Noah found himself again on the outside of the different groups. The cliques, more often than not, comprised mostly one race. However, this breakdown had more to do with class structure, geography, and activity interests than race. Kids from the suburbs hung out with other kids from the suburbs, and the same was true for kids from townships. Athletes hung out with athletes, computer enthusiasts the same, and so on. Certain social classes or races of students were more likely to play certain sports or have interests in certain clubs.

Noah didn’t fit into any of these groups. He mostly hung out with the poor black students, but he never got to see them outside of school. He didn’t ride their buses to the townships and couldn’t hang out with them on weekends because Patricia never had enough money for gas. Whenever school was not in session, Noah was alone. 

Noah’s family didn’t live close to the school, so his walk was long, which meant he was always late and, consequently, getting detention. During each day’s assembly, his name was always on the detention list announced to the student body. He was so famous as the detention kid that when his name wasn’t announced one day, everyone cheered.

Trevor Noah Finds His Niche

After the assembly was lunch, and most everyone got snacks and food from the tuck shop, a market stand. Noah was a fast runner, and he’d always be the first to make it to the tuck shop. Being first in line was a big deal. The sooner you were able to get food, the sooner you could eat, and the rest of the lunch break would be free time. There was also the chance that the tuck shop would run out of food. 

Seeing that Noah was always at the front of the line, kids started asking him to buy food for them, even offering to give him part of the change in exchange. Noah recognized the economic opportunity in front of him and became the “tuck-shop guy.”

He started taking orders at the assembly. He started doing so much business, he had to turn people away. Eventually, he started accepting only five orders a day, offering his services to the highest bidders. Soon, Noah was making enough money to buy his lunch with his profits and keep the money from his mom as petty cash.

Noah found it easy to maneuver among the different groups as the tuck-shop guy. His presence was non-threatening and non-intrusive. He blended in, popping in long enough to participate in whatever each group was discussing or playing, maybe tell a few jokes, then move on. 

The other kids accepted these intrusions because Noah provided a service they wanted. He was still an outsider, but at least he wasn’t an outcast anymore. Trevor Noah’s educational experience was full of lessons–many of them not academic, but all of them crucial to his later success as a comedian.

Trevor Noah’s Education: The Misfit Who Got Expelled

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Here's what you'll find in our full Born a Crime summary:

  • Why Trevor Noah's birth was an illegal crime
  • How Trevor's single mother was the beacon of strength in his life
  • How Trevor ultimately broke out and achieved success
Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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