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A diploma ... 30 years later

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June 7, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — After an accident five years ago that severed an artery in his heart, damaged his short-term memory and left him blinded for life, Jim Michaud decided to finish something he started more than 30 years ago: his high school education.

The South Starksboro resident dropped out of Mount Abraham Union High School during his junior year, when his family’s Lincoln home burned to the ground in 1977. At his mother’s urging, Michaud returned twice more to try and graduate. But he had already started a job at Shea Motors in Middlebury, and as he put it, school just “wasn’t for me.”

But this Saturday, on his 47th birthday, having finished the adult diploma program with Vermont Adult Learning, Michaud, complete with cap, gown, dark glasses and a cane, will process with the rest of the Mount Abe seniors to finally get that diploma.

“It’s about the only thing I’ve started and never finished,” he said.

But Michaud isn’t the only adult student in Addison County to graduate this month. About 50 area residents who this year completed Vermont Adult Learning programs will receive General Educational Development degrees (GEDs) and adult diplomas, some at their local high schools and some next Tuesday, June 12, at a ceremony at Middlebury College’s Kirk Alumni Center. 

The students vary vastly, said Vermont Adult Learning Regional Manager Ann Crocker. Three students this year will graduate from a new program designed for 18-to-22-year-olds who have dropped out of high school, in which they design alternative curriculums to earn the credits they need to graduate.

Six more students, of all different ages, will earn adult diplomas from their local high schools, and many more will receive their GEDs.

“We’re here to help people who need to improve their educational skills, however long it takes,” Crocker said. “We have had people take years and years, because life gets in the way when you’re an adult.”

When Michaud got it in his head to finish his education, life had gotten in the way about as much as it possibly could. But he never let that stop him.

He had been working for Hayward and Tyler, a pump manufacturing facility in Colchester, where among other duties, he performed high-pressure water tests on boiler recirculation pumps. During one of these tests in 2002, while he was inspecting a pump, a stream of pressurized water shot out at his face. The 4,850 pounds of pressure knocked Michaud off his feet, launching him backwards into a metal pole.

He suffered brain and heart damage from the collision — now he has an implanted cardio defibrillator in his heart — but perhaps worst of all, he lost his eyesight.

 “It’s hard to transition from the light to the dark,” he said. “I try to keep as upbeat as possible, but there are days, like this week with all the rain, when my body hurts so bad. It’s hard to find a smile.”

But soon after the accident, Michaud found something else.

“I was sitting there in the house feeling sorry for myself, trying to learn how to live without eyesight, and as time progressed, I realized there was something I still hadn’t finished,” he said.

So he began the Vermont Adult Learning program. Soon enough, though, he ran into more trouble: the instructors there had never worked with a blind student. They didn’t have materials in Braille, and even if they did, Michaud couldn’t read standard Braille shorthand, just letters and numbers.

“You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what to do with someone who is blind,” he said. “It was a learning curve for all of us.”

The biggest help came from his girlfriend, Rhonda Zeno. The two have been friends since elementary school, “when I wasn’t picking on her,” Michaud said, with a smile. They started dating just four months before his accident. When he began school again, she read his books and assignments aloud to him and acted as his scribe.

“They ought to give Rhonda a teaching degree,” he said. “Like they say, ‘Behind every successful man there’s a successful woman.’ Well, if it wasn’t for Rhonda, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

Shortly after his accident, Michaud visited Mount Abe with a mobility instructor from Rutland to practice walking with a cane. The instructor likes to do this exercise in a school because it provides a safe environment with long, straight hallways, Michaud explained.

But this time, it was blind Michaud who did the leading.

So little had changed about the school, that he was able to show his instructor around the halls using only his memory and his brand new cane. Even some of the teachers he had in the ’70s are still there today, he said.

“Mrs. Mayer, she remembers me from high school,” he said. “That’s not necessarily a good thing. I spent a lot of time in the principal’s office.”

But on Saturday, Michaud will make quite a different impression. This week he attended graduation rehearsals at the school, marching with the senior class.

His daughter, Mary, will graduate from Mount Abe next year, and his neighbor, Cassie Marion, who graduates from eighth grade this year, will escort him to the stage to get his diploma.

After the celebration, Michaud said, he wants to take some time off, “let it all sink in,” and then go back to school again to master Braille so he can regain his independence.

When asked how it feels to finally wrap up his high school education, he protested, “I didn’t make it yet, ask me Sunday morning and I’ll tell you.”

But then he added, “It puts a period at the end of my sentence. It brings everything full circle.”

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