“What happened, honey?” Her mom asked as she ate dinner, stooped over her plate.
Moms are moms. They have that innate sense of something in the air and her mom sensed gloom.
“April! Look at me”, she said.
April looked up and there were tears in her eyes.
Somehow Teresa knew before her daughter said anything. She knew that she had been passed up for that promotion at work…… again.
It’s not hard to guess these things. Women have a higher rate of being passed over at workplace. They have a higher chance of being invisible despite being more efficient. They also have a higher rate of job dissatisfaction, lack of camaraderie at work and the overwhelming feeling of being the other. Work rarely becomes their second home. They give work their soul but there is rarely the type of appreciation given to them that’s reserved for dedicated male professionals.
“Sometimes I feel it’s not worth it. I work harder, put in longer hours, meet deadlines faster, have no social life and yet, I’ve been neglected three times in a row. Why is that? I’ve asked for feedback and haven’t received any negative feedback. I’ve only ever been given positive reviews on my evaluations. My coworkers like me. What’s missing?”, April said dejectedly.
“Nothing’s missing, honey. These things happen. They happen due to luck or just seniority sometimes”.
“But this guy that they promoted today to senior editor just came. He has only worked for a year. I’ve been here five years. Every time there’s a spot for the next step on the ladder I’m passed over. I’ve never really asked my boss about it but I’m going to ask him tomorrow. He has to have a reason for it”.
Teresa looked at her ambitious daughter thoughtfully. She half wanted to stop her but a part of her wanted April to have the conversation that she could never have with her boss.
Teresa lost her husband when she was 22. April was 2 and life was tough. Her own parents couldn’t support her and therefore she decided to get a job as soon as she came back from her husband’s funeral. She soon landed a job at the supermarket, on the cash register, initially for four hours a week but was soon given a sixty hour work week when her boss saw how quick she was and how much she got done in a small amount of time. Teresa also didn’t consider her job a chore. She loved working and routinely picked up work around the store that wasn’t part of her job description. “The store needs me”, she’d think and happily stock, make inventory, clean and unload from trucks.
But she couldn’t work at the super marker forever, she knew that. She hadn’t seen herself as a working woman ever but now that she was working she wanted to push herself. She wondered what it would be like to do something totally out of her comfort zone. She fantasized about an office job, crisp suits and paper work. She wondered what type of education she’d need for that.
She met with an employment counselor and talked about her aspirations. The employment counselor was a kind woman in her seventies. She looked at Teresa and wondered why a young and pretty woman like her was working. She asked Teresa that.
“How will I eat if I don’t work?”
Martha squinted her eyes at Teresa,
“I’ve never seen a woman walk through these doors. And a pretty girl like you! Why don’t you get married again?”
“Why? So someone could feed me? I can feed myself”.
Well, that’s strange, Martha thought. Why would a woman want to take care of herself when a man can?
But to Teresa she said,
“You finished high school which is good. But you don’t have a college degree. If you want to work the type of job that you’re looking for, they’ll ask for a college degree”.
Teresa was a little nonplussed,
“Where am I going to get a college degree from?”
“From a college, dear”.
“But when do I have the time to go to college and get a degree?”
“Honey! You want to take this path so that’s for you to figure out. You might have to work less, live a little frugally, complete a two year degree in four , continue getting credits however. If you want to make it on your own, a nice job won’t just be dropped in your lap by a birdie”.
Teresa left. She couldn’t do it. She had April to take care of and had never planned to go to college in her mid twenties.
But her longing for doing more, learning more and accomplishing more continued to grow. And finally, one day after she dropped April at a play date on a Saturday she went back to Martha.
“You’re a tenacious little monkey”, Martha observed from atop her tiny glasses, examining Teresa with a glint of a laugh in her eyes.
Teresa laughed too.
“Martha! I love my job, I really do. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful and like I don’t appreciate how kind God has been to me. But I want more. A lot more. I want my daughter to have a counselor in me someday”.
“Okay, honey. If you must. I have a lawyer who is looking for someone to file his cabinets for him. It’s not everyday. Two nights a week. Do you think you could do that?”
Teresa fell silent. She couldn’t leave little April with anyone in the evenings. She had few friends who were all working moms. Her own mom was old and still taking care of some kids that she had at home. She told Martha of her worries. Martha smiled,
“I’ll help you. I’ll watch April for the two evenings. But you’ll have to do something for me in return”.
“Yes, anything. I can pay you for that time”, Teresa said eagerly.
Martha raised her left hand.
“I don’t need money. Can you clean my house those two days and cook for me?”
Teresa laughed. This was easy.
So it began. Teresa continued working mornings at the supermarket, worked for two evenings at the lawyer’s office and cooked and cleaned for Martha for those two evenings also.
Teresa’s new boss was a man in his fifties with a busy practice. He didn’t care he had a new assistant in the office. He usually delegated tasks to his immediate secretary, Nadia, who used to forward the messages to Teresa.
Teresa noticed that Nadia didn’t like her. She was curt and short with Teresa. When Teresa had started she was heartened by the thought of having another woman at work. Now she wasn’t so sure she wanted to have anything to do with Nadia.
Soon Nadia was pregnant and had to leave. She gave her three month notice. Her pregnancy made her even more ill-tempered. She frequently lost her temper with Mr. Patterson’s clients also. Teresa hated the way she put the pensioners files under all the other corporate cases. She wondered if Mr. Patterson knew about it.
As Nadia’s time to leave came closer, a new thought started brewing in Teresa’s head. May be Mr. Patterson would promote her!
This thought occupied her mind all the time. She found herself working even more diligently, in hopes of being promoted. Sometimes she thought about why she was so shaky. Of course the position was hers. Who else was there to take it anyway? It was her and Nadia only in the office besides the attorney. It could only be her.
She carried a little secret in her heart all the time. The secret that she’d be the office manager soon. Soon she’d be the one filing the cases according to the dates they were filed, according to the time the clients had to appeal for themselves, according to priority. She would get dizzy thinking about how she had so quickly learned so much legal jargon and had become quite astute at comprehending penal codes and court terminology. She loved her new job and loved how for the first time she was learning something new. Something almost foreign to her world.
But she couldn’t keep her excitement from April. April was 6 and a very bright child. She knew her Mama was smiling and singing for a reason . She could see that her Mama was working harder than ever but was still happy. She asked Teresa one day,
“Why’re you so happy, Mama? Do you have a new boyfriend?”
Teresa gasped. She looked at Martha. Martha spent most nights with them now. She had lost her only child to terminal cancer two years ago and wanted a family. Teresa and April were like a godsend.
“You need to answer her question, Teresa”.
“No”, she said smiling from ear to ear, “I don’t have a new boyfriend”.
“Then why’re you so happy?”
Teresa continued to smile. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t want to spill the beans before time because she wanted it to be a big surprise. As she was laying in bed with April that night, after Martha had left for the day, she leaned over and whispered in April’s ear,
“I’m going to get a promotion”.
“I’m going to become someone very important to my boss. I’m going to be Nadia.”
“Really, Mama?” April knew who Nadia was. Teresa often talked about her and her stuck-up attitude with Martha.
“Wow! I’m so happy for you, Mama”.
“It’s for both of us, April. It’s ours to celebrate”.
April smiled and snuggled with her Mama. She knew her mother had pretty few things to celebrate. She loved to see her mother smile and be happy.
At work, Teresa noticed an unusual commotion. There were women coming into the office everyday. They briefly met with Mr. Patterson and would then spend a part of the day with Nadia. She wanted to ask Nadia but was afraid that she would give back a snarky reply. So she watched.
One day Nadia brought a tall, immaculately dressed girl who looked about eighteen, to meet Teresa.
“Teresa! Meet Celia.”
“Hi”, Teresa shook her hand.
“Celia is the new office manager”, Nadia said.
Teresa blinked. She tried to understand what Nadia was saying but couldn’t. She asked,
“Office manager? This office’s manager?”
Nadia had the most smug expression on her face as she turned from Teresa and said to Celia,
“Celia! Teresa will explain to you anything that you find confusing. I apologize if I left anything out but Teresa knows everything”.
Teresa stared at Nadia. If she knew everything then why was a new woman here? Why was she passed over for this position? Why was she good enough to train this girl but not good enough to be in her place? She wanted to cry but tears were stuck in her throat. She swallowed hard, noticing a sharp pain in her throat as she did, and left the room.
As soon as she got out on the street, she had a thought. Wait a minute! Why did I leave the room, she thought to herself. Why didn’t I ask what it was that was missing in me? Why did I assume that I didn’t deserve it? Why did I accept so easily that they found someone better than me? Why am I hiding my tears?
To her horror, her feet were carrying her into Nadia’s office. She pushed the door open and stepped inside. Nadia stared at her and then asked coolly.
“Can I help you?”
“No!” Teresa said, drawing herself to her full height, “No, you can’t. I’m not here for help. I’m here for feedback. I’m here for some answers”.
“Okay”, Nadia said contemptuously, “go ahead if you want to embarrass yourself”.
“First of all, how come you never mentioned that you posted the job?”
“The goings-on of this office are a matter between me and Mr. Patterson. Kindly consider yourself not privy to the operations of this place. You have a very specific job description”.
“Okay”, Teresa continued, feeling emboldened by Nadia’s arrogance, “how come you never considered me for the job?”
Teresa stared at her. The hatred in Nadia’s eyes for another woman baffled Teresa. Why did she have it out for her? What had she done to her? Was it possible that her boss could’ve considered her for this position and Nadia just didn’t like her and so managed to execute everything with an elaborate plan?
“Yes, me, Nadia! Me! Why didn’t you or Mr. Patterson consider me for this job?”
Nadia looked at her pitifully,
“Because you’re so……. plain. Look at your clothes. They’re so frumpy. You don’t look like a woman in her twenties. You look like someone’s widowed aunt. You look like you don’t get two square meals a day. Like you’re permanently tired. Get a grip on yourself. Did you really think Patterson was going to promote you to MY position? Only the best girls for his office manager positions. Only the most presentable! Only the best put-together! You, darling, really belong in a super market’s back kitchen making lasagne and fried chicken”.
Teresa could feel her dignity and her esteem deflating. For some reason this was all a reverberation of her worst insecurities about herself. She always thought that she was just a little sensitive, just a little sore from losing her husband so early in life and having to be on her own, just a little jaded by life and its idiosyncrasies. But was all this that she had only ever assumed about herself true? It must be because Nadia was saying exactly what she had always thought of herself.
She turned and left the room.
Her face was tear-stained but she didn’t care. She stared into space and got down mechanically at her stop. As she entered her home she heard April’s excited voice,
“Mama, Mama! Look!”
She looked up and April had made a Mother’s Day card for her. It was beautiful and had a child’s imagination written all over it.
There was a beautiful woman with a young girl. A very pretty girl. The woman was impeccably dressed. Every hair in place. She had rosy cheeks and eyes like coal with diamonds shining in them. She had square, broad shoulders and she stood at the edge of a mountain with the little girl, smiling proudly, her hand on her little girl’s shoulder. The sun was setting in the background and its blue and green mixed with its orange and red. And all the colors were somehow reflected in the woman’s eyes.
Teresa looked at her daughter’s drawing of her. She didn’t think she looked like this woman. She looked like a small, defeated, careworn, beaten and wrinkled woman. A woman who was neither desirable nor likable. She was a pathetic excuse of a mother, who had no chance of ever being an inspiration to her own child. She looked at April and was sad that her child might also have her fate. After all, poverty and unemployment and academic struggles are usually a family’s lot for generations.
Later that night, she had an epiphany.
Nadia wasn’t her boss. Patterson was her boss. She needed to speak with Patterson.
She shivered with fright a little at speaking with Patterson but her resolve was stronger than her fear.
The next morning while Nadia was reciting the day’s schedule loudly in Patterson’s room, Teresa entered and politely asked if Mr. Patterson would have a few minutes to spare for her.
Patterson was startled. He had barely ever noticed Teresa. He looked at Teresa and said in his usual hurried manner,
“Who are you?”
Teresa expected this. Patterson hardly ever noticed people around him. Nadia made sure he didn’t notice Teresa so of course he didn’t know her. Teresa cleared her throat and said slowly and confidently,
“I’m Teresa Andrews, your office assistant. I file the cabinets, stock the stationery, clean the office, mark appointments by week and then by hour, pick up your laundry. I do it all. Nadia and I work together but I’d say I do most of the work. Nadia has really trained me well and I think that now that she’s going away I can be your new office manager. And you won’t need an assistant. I can do it all. I’ve been doing it all.”
Patterson looked like someone had hit him on the head with a bat. Nadia was seething obviously. Then finally Patterson spoke,
“Well if you’re so confident of being a one-man army then I have no problem. I’d say full steam ahead”.
Nadia looked like she had eaten a toad. Her face was green and she looked at Teresa with daggers flying out of her eyes.
“But Mr. Patterson! We have already hired Celia”, Nadia interjected with sweet venom in her voice.
“You met her yesterday”.
“To be honest, Nadine, she looked like she was still in high school. I want an adult around here”, Patterson said and it looked like he had closed the discussion.
Nadia looked at Teresa with flames blazing in her eyes. Teresa wasn’t sure if she was angry because Patterson had trumped her decision in terms of the new office manager or because he didn’t even know that her name was Nadia, not Nadine.
Teresa skipped all the way home.
Turned out that Patterson’s habit of not getting his managers’ names right was downright annoying, even though endearing at first. He called Teresa various names, some which didn’t even sound like her name. He called her Tina most of any other name and it bothered Teresa but she was waiting for an opportunity to gently correct him.
One evening as she and Patterson were working late, he called out to her,
“Tina! Can you please bring Jones’s file in?”
Teresa took the file and made it to his office. Once he had the file in his hands, she gently corrected him,
“My name is Teresa”.
“Oh yeah”, Patterson said absentmindedly and turned the pages of the file. Then,
“Have you considered being my paralegal?”
“My paralegal! Do you know who a paralegal is? I want to hire someone but most of them are asking for a salary. I can’t afford you and a paralegal. I wondered if you’d like to fill that position”.
“But I have no training in it”.
“The training would be easy for you. You are already working at the level of a legal secretary. I can’t remember names but I do remember how someone files my cabinets in order of priority and the nature of the case”.
Teresa smiled. Patterson smiled too.
“Take your time to think. You’re protected by the state from any liability because I’m your supervisor and I won’t let you get into trouble. Regarding training, you can start your training tonight. I’ll lend you some of my books when I was a paralegal in my father’s office”.
Teresa couldn’t believe it. Patterson was showing her a way into the future. Something that she hadn’t even dreamed of.
She took the book and devoured it in one week. She continued to borrow books until one day she said to Patterson,
“Mr. Patterson! I’d like to work on this case with you if you like”.
The case was of a divorce settlement. A woman wanted divorce because of her spouse cheating on her. Teresa had seen the husband rabble rousing over the alimony and child support and her heart hurt for the wife. Patterson immediately agreed.
“Tell you what? Work on this case like this woman’s life depends on it. I will present your case in court so prepare it well”.
Teresa worked late into the night. She worked on the case for a full year. At the end of the year, the case was settled and the woman walked away with full custody of the kids and a nice alimony.
Patterson gave her another case.
Two years later, Teresa had seen every case that had walked through the office, had had independent meeting with clients, had trust of the clients and had become indispensable for Patterson.
She had also started to dream of something. Something that she thought was the next natural step. Something that had blossomed in her heart with time and as April had gotten older. Something that had taken roots just because she wanted to be an example for her daughter. Something that scared her and made her fearless.
Teresa wanted to apply for law school.
And she did. With Patterson’s blessing. He encouraged her to enroll in a competitive program. He guided her on how to apply, take classes and organize her life around work and education. Unfortunately his office was busier than ever and Teresa couldn’t take too many classes at once. She knew her degree would take time just because she couldn’t give school all five days of the week.
Martha was pretty much living with Teresa. They had both found a companion in each other and a family. They were raising April together. They made an odd family and many people thought that Martha was Teresa’s mother.
“Which in a way she is”, Teresa thought fondly.
Law school wasn’t easy. The most difficult part was how little April got to see Teresa. Even through the toughest times, Teresa and April had been inseparable. But work and school didn’t let Teresa spend a lot of time with her most precious daughter. She regretted it and one day, Martha found her silently crying.
When Teresa had had a good cry, Martha asked her what had happened.
“I don’t know”, Teresa replied miserably, “I sometimes wonder if it’s all worth it”.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean these are April’s formative years. She’s growing up and everyday I find her a little taller, a little smarter than the day before. It’s all happening so fast and I can’t keep up with it. I have to work and that’s okay. But other moms come home after work and spend time with their kids. I come home from work and go to class. Or I come from class and go to work. She barely gets any time with me. Is it worth it if it’s at the cost of missing out time with my only child?”
“It’s all worth it”, Martha replied gently, ” it’s worth it because April is watching you fight for and work for what you value. She is watching her mother set an example. Do you think setting an example and showing our kids how to live life is not worth it? How would April know how life is best spent if she doesn’t have a role model?.”
Teresa sighed. Martha was very kind to her and Teresa knew that Martha was trying to make her feel better about her choices.
Days and then weeks and then months passed. Teresa loved school. She liked education and had never had a chance to seriously think about it in the past. Now that she had enough college credits and was enrolled in law school she found herself more content with life.
She also found herself of dreaming again.
The dream to become Patterson’s junior partner.