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When Noah was ten years old, he was caught shoplifting batteries. Patricia told the cops that she would not come pick him up from jail, because her son needed to learn his lesson. The cops thought no mother would leave her ten-year-old in jail, so they let Trevor go, assuming he was an orphan.
Trevor frequently borrowed cars, most of which did not have proper registration, from Abel’s auto shop. During one of these trips, Trevor was pulled over by a cop and asked if he was the car’s owner. The car was not registered to Trevor, so he was arrested. Trevor borrowed money from a friend to hire a lawyer. On Trevor’s third day in jail, the cops brought in a large, muscled Tsonga man. Trevor and the other prisoners dropped their tough acts in the face of this truly intimidating criminal. Trevor recalled what Nelson Mandela had said about the power of speaking to someone in their language, and when Trevor began talking to the man in Tsonga, he quickly discovered that this man was not the hardened criminal he appeared to be. The two men shared stories, and Trevor felt compassion since he knew that his new friend would face a long sentence.
When Trevor was transferred to the holding cell to wait for his court hearing, he realized his companions were nothing like the gentle, petty thief he had just met. Hundreds of criminals waited with Trevor, all organized into the same racial groups Trevor had seen on the school playground. Trevor chose to stand with the white men, one of whom advised Trevor to cry in front of the judge. Eventually, Trevor was sentenced and released. Trevor’s cousin drove him home, where Patricia was waiting for him. Trevor was shocked to learn that his mother had, in fact, paid for Trevor’s lawyer. Patricia explained that she was so hard on Trevor because she loved him, and that the world would try to kill him.
The incident when Trevor shoplifts the batteries as a young boy helps to establish a benchmark of the extremes that Patricia will go to in order to educate her son about danger. For previous infractions, she would have taken her son home, beaten him, told him why she did so, and then told him that she loves him. When Trevor steals the batteries, however, Patricia leaves him with the people who caught him and may well take him to jail. The cops are so flabbergasted that they let him go, and once again Trevor gets away with a crime that he committed without any punishment by the law. His accusers cannot believe that he has parents, because in their worldview no parent would ever let a young child go to jail if they could prevent it. His mother’s decision, and the reaction of the police, provide further insight into the unpredictability of consequences.
Trevor’s interactions with the Tsonga man in jail provide an example of how difficult it is for strangers to get past their own perceptions of each other. When Trevor is sent to jail for driving an unregistered car, this arrest is the first time that he is both guilty of committing a crime and then punished appropriately according to the law. He is also on his own in jail for the first time, and with none of his peers there to provide context for the other diverse people who surround him, he misjudges the Tsonga man solely on appearance, just as so many people have misjudged Trevor. When Trevor is moved to the holding cell, he judges the men there as well, but this time his negative perception and fear of the men is correct. This fear spurs his choice to stand with the white men in the holding cell. Up until now, Trevor has benefitted when others perceive him to be of a certain race, such as his grandmother’s refusal to beat him and when the cops who arrested Teddy let Trevor go. This time in jail is the first instance in which Trevor designates his own identity to mitigate danger and perhaps earn privilege.
Throughout the book, Noah establishes a pattern of Patricia’s responses to his behavior and demonstrates that she is willing to go to the extreme when teaching him a lesson, but she will also never abandon her son. Patricia shows her compassion and sympathy by hiring a lawyer, an act that surprises Trevor. This investment is especially shocking considering how frugal she is with her limited income. Patricia knows that the world does not love her son, and that the world might actually hate him because of the color of his skin. The tough love Patricia extends to her son contrasts with the unmitigated violence she knows Trevor could face simply because of his appearance.