26. Heroes Do Not Brag

I know a woman, Tessa, who is unassuming and modest. She never brags about herself or her accomplishments. It would be easy to overlook her, but I think that would be a shame.

She came to the U.S. as a toddler with her parents, who moved here legally. Tessa’s mother did not speak English, but her father was bilingual and he made sure to communicate with his children in English.

The Brooklyn, NY neighborhood where Tessa’s family ended up was teeming with other immigrants, survivors of World War II, which had ended about a decade earlier. Tessa and her siblings would play with the girl next door, who was a little younger than Tessa. The girl’s parents were from Poland, and their arms bore the telltale tattooed numbers. Tessa was too young to understand the horrors that those numbers represented.

Tessa attended a public school to which her mother walked her every day. Her parents expected her to do well, and she did, even as early as the first grade. She was polite to her elders and well-behaved, but, oddly, she came to be considered a bit of a disciplinary problem.

It all started when Tessa took a fellow classmate under her wing. The classmate was a Polish girl who knew only a few words in English. A couple of the other children in class began to bully her, taunting her with words she did not understand, even taking to pulling her hair and poking their fingers into her fleshy arms. The little girl would end up in tears.

Tessa decided to put a stop to the nonsense. The next time one of the kids started harassing her protégé, Tessa first told him to cut it out, and when that had no effect, she used the only weapon she could think of: her front teeth, which she sank into the boy’s arm. That put an end to the bullying, but it got Tessa in trouble with her school. She didn’t care, and when she explained herself to her mother, there was no punishment at home. Mind you, Tessa was 7 at the time.

Years later, she went to work at an automobile insurance brokerage company which had several locations. When Tessa interviewed for the position, she was told that she was expected to work Mondays through Fridays plus two Saturdays per month. She asked if there would be overtime pay for working on Saturdays, and she was assured that there would be. Paychecks were issued every two weeks.

After receiving her first two paychecks, Tessa scrutinized her pay stubs and detected no extra pay for Saturday work. She asked about that, and the payroll administrator told her not to worry, that the overtime was included in the hours paid. Another pay period passed, and Tessa carefully calculated her hours and pay. She came up with an hourly rate that was less than she had signed up for. She knew it would be useless to go to the payroll administrator once again. She began asking fellow employees about their pay, and she came to the conclusion that no one was receiving overtime pay.

Tessa contacted her State’s labor department and reported her suspicions. Before long, the State audited the company’s payroll records and found widespread abuse. In the end, Tessa received backpay of a couple of hundred dollars. Employees who had worked at the company for years received thousands of dollars in backpay.

Needless to say, the company was none too happy with Tessa (and hardly any employees thanked her for sticking her neck out). When it was time for a raise, the company gave her the bare minimum. But, again, Tessa did not care. She knew she had done the right thing. And she had already made plans to leave the company.

What did Tessa end up doing? She put herself through law school while holding down part-time jobs. Eventually, she became a Legal Services attorney who helped poor people who needed representation against unscrupulous landlords or in obtaining benefits that were wrongfully denied. In her spare time, she tutored immigrants who wanted to improve their English skills or become U.S. citizens.

But she won’t tell you any of that unless you press her.

Terrace of Lions – Delos, Greece courtesy of “Mrs. Anton”

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