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Read an Excerpt from Rabbit: A Memoir

A teacher changes the course of her student's life.

Read an Excerpt from Rabbit A Memoir

Miss Thompson was my regular third grade teacher, but she didn’t teach me much of anything, unless you consider giving the side eye a skill. All my most important learning happened Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons from one o’clock to 2:05. That’s when I went downstairs to a small classroom across the hall from the cafeteria to see Miss Troup for Title 1 remedial reading. Kids called it the slow class, but I didn’t care. I loved hanging out with Miss Troup. She was the exact opposite of my mother: quiet, calm, and patient. Plus she was the number one sharpest dressed teacher in the whole school. Miss Troup must have had a closetful of pastel-colored skirt suits and matching floral blouses, because it seemed like she wore a different outfit each day. She styled her hair in a big, bouncy press ’n’ curl and wore long fake eyelashes. But best of all were her boots: bad-to-the-bone, knee-length, brown leather with stacked heels, and always polished to a shine. She looked like she just stepped out of the pages of Jet magazine. Miss Troup—the baddest bitch at English Avenue Elementary—is the teacher who finally taught me how to read.

“Patricia, honey, just try to sound it out,” she said one afternoon, tapping the page with a bright red fingernail painted the color of a cinnamon Red Hot. We were sitting in her classroom with a book cracked open on the desk in front of us. It was hot and I was tired. “Just give it a try,” she said again. I looked hard at the letters. I knew they were strung together in words I should recognize, but none of it made sense.

Not everybody in my life knew I couldn’t read. Mama, for one, thought I could read my ass off. Every afternoon, she would pick up a copy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the corner store. First she’d flip to the comic strips and put her face close to the paper, looking for numbers she was convinced were hidden in the hair or clothes or scenery of the cartoons. Like maybe she’d see a 4 in the background behind Charlie Brown, or a 7 in Hagar the Horrible’s beard. Those were the numbers she’d use for the fifty-cent bets she placed with the Numbers Man. The only other thing she got the newspaper for was to check her daily horoscope. But Mama had never finished elementary school and didn’t know how to read. Instead, she’d hand me the paper and ask me to tell her what it said.

“Sagittarius,” I’d say, looking down with my forehead wrinkled in fake concentration. Then I’d make some shit up: “This is NOT a good day for beating on your children. TODAY IS NOT A GOOD DAY FOR ANY TYPE OF WHOOPING AT ALL!”

Reading Mama’s fake horoscope was easy, but with Miss Troup reading took all my brainpower. Sitting beside her, I could feel the frustration rising up inside me. “Sound it out,” she said again. “Just take your time.” On the page in front of me was a drawing of a cat wearing a big-ass striped hat and red bow tie, holding an umbrella. What the hell? I thought. If the damn picture made no kind of sense, how was I supposed to figure out the words?

“I don’t know what it says,” I mumbled.

“Just give it a try,” she urged.

“I can’t do it.”

I put my face down on the desk, closed my eyes, and swung my legs hard, kicking the metal frame of my chair with the back of my heel.

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Bang.

Bang.

Bang.

Bang.

I could feel the tears coming. I didn’t even know why I was crying. “It’s okay,” Miss Troup said softly, rubbing my back. “You’re doing fine.” I thought she was going to let me sit out the whole lesson with my face on the desk, the way Miss Thompson did in my regular class. But instead she told me to sit up. Then she turned her chair to face me, looked me in the eye and she said, “Patricia, I’d like you to come by my room tomorrow morning before the first bell. Do you think you can do that?”

“Why?” I asked, worried. “Am I in trouble?”

“No, not at all,” she answered, gently. “I want you to come in early because I have a little something for you.”

Then she smiled at me, big and wide, with her cherry-red lipstick and Chiclet teeth, and I got the feeling that whatever she had for me had to be something good.

***

The next morning, I splashed some cold water on my face, pulled on the musty jeans I’d been wearing all week, and took off running—past Mama asleep on the living room sofa with a Bumpy Face bottle on the floor beside her—and out the front door. I flew past Drunk Tony hanging out on the corner. “Girl, you gettin’ some ass!” he yelled at me, like always.

“Fuck you, Tony!” I shouted back, and kept on running. When I got to the school, I flung open the side door, ran up the ramp, and busted into Miss Troup’s room, sweaty and out of breath.

“Good morning, Patricia!” she said, looking up from her desk. She was wearing a peach-colored dress with a giant bow at the collar and her bad-bitch leather boots. “I’m so happy to see you.” Miss Troup reached under her desk, pulled out a blue nylon gym bag, and told me to follow her down the hall to the girls’ bathroom. We stepped inside and she started taking things out of her bag and setting them down on the side of the sink: a brand-new bar of Ivory soap, a pink container to put the soap in, a Tussy cream deodorant, a tube of Aquafresh toothpaste, a white washrag folded into a little square, and a brand-new toothbrush with a red handle, still in the wrapper.

“Patricia,” she said, turning to me, “these are your things.”

I looked at the items she’d laid out, then back at her, confused.

“They’re for you to wash up,” she explained. “I’m going to step outside and give you a little privacy. While I’m gone, I want you to use the washrag and clean your face and neck and under your arms, and put on the deodorant. When you’re finished, you can change into these.” She reached back into her gym bag and pulled out a bright yellow and white striped T-shirt and a brand-new pair of jeans. I’d secretly been hoping that Miss Troup was going to give me a pair of knee-high leather boots and a big curly wig. But a pair of stiff new jeans from Woolworth and a fresh top were almost as good.

“I’ll be right outside,” she said, giving me a little pat on the shoulder before she turned to leave, the door swinging closed behind her.

Alone in the girls’ room, I let the hot water run over my hands and lathered up the soap. I washed my face and neck and under my arms, just like she told me. I brushed my teeth until my mouth felt minty fresh. Then I pulled on my brand-new clothes and stepped into the hallway where Miss Troup was waiting on me.

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“Don’t you look right cute!” she exclaimed “Just like a doll.”

I smoothed my hands down the front of my T-shirt. In my whole life I’d never felt as good in an outfit as I did that day. “Thank you,” I said, giving Miss Troup a smile so wide I felt like my face was gonna crack in two.

I started washing up at school every morning after that. Sometimes Miss Troup would bring me new clothes I’d never seen before, and sometimes she’d bring back my funky-smelling Goodwill clothes, only they’d be clean and pressed, like she was she was running a little laundry service at night. She even did my hair, combing out all the naps and braiding four neat plaits that she finished off with plastic barrettes in colors to match my outfit.

One afternoon, Porsha and Mercedes and a bunch of their friends ran up on me and Sweetie as we were walking home. “Look at this nappy-headed ho,” said Mercedes, smacking Sweetie in the back of her head so hard it knocked my sister to the ground. “You a nasty bitch! I’ma whoop your ass for being so nasty.” There were so many of them, there was nothing I could do but watch helplessly as Mercedes kicked the shit out of Sweetie while the other girls laughed.

Porsha turned to me, taking in my outfit. “Huh,” she said, eyeballing the dark blue skirt and crisp white T-shirt Miss Troup had given me that morning. “Patricia don’t look so raggedy today. Just her raggedy-ass sister who needs to get beat.”

***

I don’t think Miss Troup had any idea of the ass-whoopings she saved me from, or that I loved everything about her. I loved the way she smiled and her soapy smell. I even grew to like the tap tap tap sound of her shiny red nails hitting the page while she taught me to read. Miss Troup was badass and beautiful. She was like an angel to me.

In the girls’ bathroom one morning, I studied her reflection while she fixed my hair. Her hands felt warm against my scalp as she smoothed down my edges with Blue Magic. Whenever Mama did my hair, which wasn’t often, she was rough and impatient, and it hurt like hell. If I dared cry out from the pain, she’d smack me in the side of my head with her wood-handled brush.

Miss Troup looked up and caught my gaze in the mirror. She flashed me a smile, then her face turned serious. “Patricia,” she said, “I want to tell you something.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I want you to know I believe in you.”

“Okay.”

“You’re a bright girl with a lot of potential.”

“Potential?”

“It means if you work hard, you can do anything. If you study, and really apply yourself, you can finish school, go to college, and grow up to be anything you want: a teacher, a doctor, a nurse. Anything. You can be somebody. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. But I wasn’t so sure. No one in my family did any of the things Miss Troup was talking about. I couldn’t name a single relative who’d finished high school. And I sure never saw any of them with a career, or even a legal job for that matter. My uncle Skeet was an expert at picking locks, and Aunt Vanessa made money selling food stamps for fifty cents on the dollar. I was pretty sure that’s not what Miss Troup was talking about when she said I had potential.

“This world is filled with possibilities,” she continued, resting her hands on my shoulders and staring into my eyes. “You can do anything you put your mind to. Anything at all. All you have to do is dream. Promise me you’ll remember that, Patricia. Promise me you’ll dream.”

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Nobody had ever talked to me like this before: not Granddaddy, not any of my regular teachers, and definitely not Mama. In my family, we all moved in the same direction, hustling and scheming and getting nowhere. That was the path laid out in front of me. But now here was Miss Troup—in all her leather-boot and red-fingernail finery—telling me I could go another way. I took a deep breath and gazed at my reflection. You can do anything and be anything, I thought, trying it on for size. But I wasn’t totally convinced I had a place in Miss Troup’s world of “possibilities” and “potential.”

“Promise me you’ll dream,” she said again.

“I promise?” I said, looking up at her uncertainly.

“C’mon now, Patricia. I know you can do better than that.” She gave me a little squeeze.

“Okay,” I said, starting to giggle. “I promise!”

Patricia "Ms. Pat" Williams is a stand-up comedian, actress, and writer. Rabbit (with Jeannine Amber) is her first book.

From the book Rabbit: A Memoir by Patricia Williams, with Jeannine Amber. Copyright © 2017 by Patricia Williams. From Dey Street, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.