I was a plumber’s helper for six years, and I take a day off here and there from my current job to climb back into the green van.

Daughter Grace visits Lynne Benoit-Vachon’s office as a plumber’s helper – a Sprinter van – on April 25, 2013, Take Your Child to Work Day. Photo by Lynne Benoit-Vachon

I became a plumber’s helper at the age of 45. Before this time, I cared little about how water reached a faucet. In my basement, the ancient boiler existed in a constant state of moisture and leakage I failed to understand or correct. My experience with tools consisted of squeezing an eyelash curler or a pair of tweezers.

The person who hired me was a master plumber with over two decades of experience and a depth of knowledge spanning many trades. We agreed to a one-week trial. Our office was an evergreen Sprinter van lined with metal boxes and drawers. Hoses swayed from bungee cords. A row of battered buckets held brass and copper fittings that clinked and clanked with every frost heave and pothole typical of a Maine road.

I climbed into the driver’s seat on that first day, coming from a place of loss. I had closed my Pilates studio when the troubles of the Great Recession began to affect my family. A year later, I was laid off from a health coaching job. I backed the van out of the driveway as a middle-aged woman who felt she had bungled her life a bit.

A week turned into a month. A year. So much about the work world I navigated was foreign to me. I returned from the supply house with the wrong part. My hands fumbled with the pipe wrench. My plumbing boss remained practical and patient. He had a business to run, and worked with what he had. Yes, I made mistakes. “But of the two of us,” he said, “I’ll make the more costly ones.”

I worked with what I had, too. A life in fitness meant I could move heavy things like electric water heaters and cast iron pipe, without hurting myself. Heavy lifting in service felt more useful than my weight room workouts. I needed to better understand mechanics and practice with tools, so I took apart discarded igniters and relay boxes that came my way. My plumbing boss noticed this. When heading out on heating service calls, he detailed the customer’s complaints and asked me what I thought the problem might be. At lunch he drew diagrams on the white sides of placemats. Slowly, slowly, the routines of water heater replacements, boiler cleanings and plumbing rough-ins revealed themselves.

In any new endeavor, have faith in your abilities. Past experience may support your present effort more than you think and lead you through the unfamiliar. If you don’t have a great boss to remind you of your value, remind yourself. Prepare and move on if you need to. Wherever you land as the new kid once again, you take your strength of experience with you.

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