What the World Can’t Take Away

Let’s start the story here.

It’s 2008. Massachusetts. The phone’s not ringing at Michael Vaudreuil’s plastering business. It hasn’t for months. Twenty-four years. For 24 years, half the guy’s life, the phone has rung, he’s plastered for his customers and he’s put food on the table, heat in the house for his three kids and wife.

His background was aeronautical engineering. He’d gotten an associate’s degree in it. But then airline deregulation happened. So he changed course. Built this plastering business. Built it until it was really something. And now, 2008, nothing.

He closes his business. Files for bankruptcy. His house is foreclosed on. His car is repossessed. It’s like the world is taking all the big things away from him. “Just a shell of a person,” is how he describes himself.

Mr. Vaudreuil (you say it, “VU-dray”) looks for work. Something. Anything. And he finds a job: custodian at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. It’s half of what he used to make. The hours are crummy – graveyard shift. But he takes it.

He cleans chalkboards. Vacuums carpets. Scrubs tables. And to cut the pain he’s got, that empty shell feeling, he takes some classes at WPI. It’s free for employees. He designs a prototype of a fuel cartridge. He starts to feel a little better. Like he’s doing something worthwhile.

He takes more classes. The students are nice to him. They are also decades younger than him. They study in cafes and go drinking at night. He studies in the custodian closet and vacuums at night. Somewhere in there, he gets four and a half hours of sleep. He takes it one day at a time, he says.

But those days add up and those classes add up. And now in the story, it’s 2016.

Mr. Vaudreuil is with his fellow students. But he’s not in class. He’s taken enough classes. Enough to get a degree in mechanical engineering. And he’s at graduation. Getting a bachelor’s degree for the first time. Him, Michael Vaudreuil, age 54.

After he graduates, word gets out about his story. Companies in California and Michigan and New Hampshire hear about him. They want to hire him. He doesn’t know which he’ll take. But he knows his phone is ringing again.

And it’s eight years after bankruptcy and foreclosure and feeling like a shell of a man. Eight years after all the big stuff was taken away from him.

Which, of course, it wasn’t.

Because the world could take the business and the house and the car away from Michael Vaudreuil. But there was something bigger left, some spirit or heart or fire still burning in that shell.

And the world couldn’t take that away from Michael Vaudreuil.

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