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Staff Photo by Grant Morris

Souhegan High School Senior, Doug Lens gives a presentation entitled "How to Become a Professional Rapper", during his senior presentation at the school, Thursday afternoon.
Friday, June 10, 2011

Communication disability can’t stop Souhegan senior

EDITOR’S NOTE: Every year The Telegraph profiles one graduating senior from various high schools in our coverage area. This is one of a series of such profiles that will be published in coming weeks.

AMHERST – Even when he was an infant, people were already using some pretty big words around Doug Lens, words like Goldenhar syndrome and anotia, and an alphabet soup called fundoplication.

In short, doctors told Don and Cynthia Lens, their only child would grow up with hearing problems and, distressingly, most likely never be able to speak well enough to communicate.

So they taught him sign language, assuming the toddler’s occasional unintelligible utterances would never evolve into even basic verbal communication.

Today, the Souhegan High School senior smiles a slightly lopsided smile as he looks back over the series of struggles and successes that he crafted into a foundation on which to build a future as what one administrator called “one of the most articulate kids I know.”

Shortly after Souhegan dean of students Bob Thompson made that comment, the soft-spoken, thoughtful Lens walked to the front of a packed classroom, clicked open a music file and began to rap.

Not “rap” as in ’60’s hippie slang for “talk,” but rap in the style of the enormous – and late – “Big Punisher,” “Kool G Rap” and others who helped push a new and relatively obscure music genre of the ’70s into prominence on the mainstream stage of today.

“Who could imagine a kid who wasn’t supposed to even speak could get up there and do that?” Thompson said as Lens took questions from his enraptured audience following his presentation.

After he graduates on Friday, June 17, Lens will begin thinking about pursuing that lifelong dream of becoming a rap artist, tempering it with a more conventional course study in neuroscience and neurology. No matter what, though, rap will always be at least a favorite hobby, if not his chief avocation.

Born in Leominster, Mass., Doug Lens was 4 when his parents moved to Amherst. By then, the tyke, guided by mom and dad’s gentle prodding, was well on his way to proving doctors wrong.

His is a rare, but not unheard of, combination of diagnoses. Goldenhar syndrome, a congenital defect characterized by incomplete development of the ear, nose, soft palate, lip and mandible, is what led doctors to predict Lens would face lifelong speech problems.

Anotia, meanwhile, describes an equally rare congenital deformity – a missing auricle, which is the external, visible part of the ear. Lens is a textbook case – he has no right ear inside or out, save for a small nub of skin where the auricle should be.

As for fundoplication, that’s the name of the surgical procedure Lens underwent to relieve symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease – GERD – whose symptoms sometimes occur in patients with Goldenhar syndrome. The surgery was a success, though it means no more drinking soda, Lens said.

The series of medical procedures, not surprisingly, kept Lens out of school for varying lengths of time over the years. But rather than letting the distracting absences discourage him, he vowed to persevere as though he’d missed nary a day, saying “thanks, but no thanks” to kind teachers who offered him a little leeway and soldiering on knowing “I can do everything everyone else can” without any special treatment.

The first real test of his mettle came at age 12, when doctors twice tried unsuccessfully to reconstruct his ear. The procedures caused him to miss large chunks of the seventh grade.

Then, come his sophomore year, Lens was out the better part of a month as surgeons fitted him with what he calls a “protective bowl,” a procedure that simply put stabilizes and protects the affected right side of his face and head. After that, he had to miss every Thursday for follow-up checkups in Boston.

“It’s ingrained in my brain that, yes, I have a disability, but I can still perform whatever I’m doing naturally, normally,” he said. His long sophomore-year absence is a good example: “I ended up doing better that semester than I usually do,” Lens said with a smile.

He says his surges of inspiration come directly from the way his parents worked with him as he first began trying to talk. “They made me take the time to say words the right way,” he said. “They didn’t let it slide. I know that’s where my motivation for schoolwork comes from, too.”

Lens credits his deep interest in poetry for turning him on to the virtues of the rap music genre, which in turn led to his choice for his senior project titled “How Does One Become a Professional Recording Artist?”

“For a long time, things that were going on medically made me feel like I didn’t have a voice,” he said, acknowledging the little pun. “So I wrote a lot of poems, saying how I felt, what I was thinking, and pretty soon it sort of morphed into rap verse.”

While to the uninitiated it might seem quite a stretch, Lens easily compares the structure of classic poetry to the evolution of rap. He cites the importance of a rhyme scheme: “If you don’t have a rhyme scheme, you’re not a rapper. You’re annoying,” he deadpanned to a round of laughter from his audience.

Very well-researched, Lens traced for his senior project the history of rap, from its sing-songy 1970s infancy and “golden age” 1980s to its media-saturated ’90s gangsta phase and so on. Despite its penchant for obscene and violent lyrics, Lens said, the emergence of gangsta is a major factor in the genre’s eventual notoriety and success.

“It was roundly criticized, but all the media exposure helped it grow,” he said.“Despite its flaws, it became the foundation for what rap is today.”

Lens has designed a logo and has even gone as far as to adopt what he calls “my cool rap name” – D-Crepit – for his would-be rap career.

“Since sixth grade, I’ve fantasized about becoming a rap artist,” he said. “I always thought how neat it would be to have a rap artist who wasn’t even supposed to talk out there performing.

“It’s still my lifetime goal.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 31, or