Right Opinion

Eric Duquette Speaks

Roy Exum · Jul. 11, 2010

When Eric Duquette was five years old, he had never said a word. As a matter of fact, he still wore diapers and dared not make eye contact with anyone. This was because, the doctors were certain, young Eric was horribly autistic. He would be forever bound by the steely ropes of the cruel disability for the rest of his life. The same doctors told his parents he must be institutionalized.

So before I tell you how Eric spoke on June 15, please allow me to first explain why there are three chairs in “the winner’s circle” of my personal hall of fame today instead of the customary one. Two are where Dennis and Judith, Eric’s parents, shall be inducted as well because while I treasure heroes, this one comes in a set of three.

It’s just like Jacob Riis, the 19th century newspaperman once described: “Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it.  Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

Because of Dennis and Judith, and “all that had done before” for their seemingly hopeless son, when Dennis spoke on June 15 it was – get this – as the salutatorian of Smithfield High School. Yes, he earned the second-highest GPA in a graduating class of 199 at Smithfield High School, located in a small New England village a few miles inland from the tiniest state’s coastline.

His most recent hurdle, obviously, was the award itself. As the salutatorian he was required to give a speech. If you study autism at all, you’ll learn its victims are so painfully sensitive and shy they are scared to make eye contact lest it will be taken the wrong way, or if they were to accidentally touch anyone it might be misconstrued. It is a torturous life at best so imagine the enormous courage one who battles it would have to summon to give a speech in front of several hundred people.

But when Eric was called before a huge crowd in the nearby Bryant College auditorium, he took a deep breath and boldly said, “I started my academic career with a serious learning disability: autism. My parents were told that my prognosis was poor and that I would probably end up in an institution.

"Today I stand before you accepted into every institution of higher learning that I applied to. So, I guess, in a way, the experts are right about the institution thing.”

Well, of course the response rattled the roof on the place, and the applause would have been deafening had not so many been reaching for the handkerchiefs. But the most emotion came when he mused for his classmates, “Tonight is all about reflection and looking forward to the journeys that lie ahead of us,” he said.

So, in honest reflection, let’s begin with the endless hours Judith and Dennis patiently and painfully spent with their toddler Eric – in the bathroom, of all places. “You need to be distraction-free,” she explained to one news reporter. “The bathroom has one door in and one door out.”

The speech lessons started with symbols. Judith taught him to hold up one card if he was hungry, another if he wanted to watch TV, and another if he needed to go back to the bathroom. Then, at an agonizingly slow pace, hand signals took the places of the cards. Thousands of hours later, words took the place of hand language.

Diane Sawyer, who offered Eric’s story on ABC News, pointed out, “Every day, his parents focused on just 10 words, for up to eight hours a day.”

He progressed to the point that last week he was honored not just for English proficiency, but for five years of Spanish because he’s fluent in it as well. Fluent? Did I just write “fluent?” I should have written “91st in the nation in the national Spanish V testing.”

Eric further dazzled his teachers in calculus and in honors physics. This fall he will begin his quest for a biology degree at the University of Rhode Island, hoping to become a pharmacist and somehow soothe mankind with medicines after watching his beloved grandfather die of cancer.

A quick aside: Eric’s anxiety was so overwhelming in his freshman year he couldn’t bear to attend classes. The monsters within were too wild for all of that so he had to be home-schooled. But instead of a door being closed by those imaginary ghouls, there was another real-life angel who showed up out of nowhere.

The best athlete at Smithfield High School is hockey star Colby Fugere. Colby, who actually led the entire state in scoring this season, knew what was happening and, on his own, started going to see Eric when the athlete wasn’t in school himself or doing his dance on the ice. Soon the unlikely pair became best pals.

You got that; the most popular kid in town started coming by to play video games and soon helped Eric “get his grip back.” Then, at school when Eric would began to get jangled, there would be “the ice man,” Colby Fugere himself, telling the future salutatorian everything was cool, to stay calm. “Look at me, Eric … everything is cool. Hang with it. I’m right here.”

Excuse me for a brief interlude – “Stage director, please hastily add another chair to today’s winner’s circle. Broaden the spotlight’s beam! Mr. Fugere, would you take your well-deserved seat as well? Now we may proceed … ”

Towards the end of the speech, the autistic Eric Duquette charged his classmates with a lasting challenge. “I tell you (my story) so you do not allow yourself or others to be defined by your limitations but rather abilities. Never underestimate yourself,” he asked and, again, the roar was mighty.

Afterwards, a reporter for ABC asked our hero if he was scared or frightened by the ordeal, standing up in front of all those people. Said he, “I think I perfectly encompassed the compassion and spirit of Smithfield High School through each and every single one of my words.”

Lord have mercy, I just love it. Welcome to my personal Hall of Fame, all four of you, and to you, Eric, allow me to close with a famous adage, “Difficult things take a long time, impossible things a little longer.”

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