Edward Joseph Mercure is an amazing kid. Known to most by his nickname “EJ,” this Cranston student is far from ordinary. He is 13 years old, on the autistic spectrum, and is taking a college-level chemistry course.
Several years ago, EJ was diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by impaired social interactions and is commonly called high functioning autism. Since that diagnosis, EJ has had to overcome a lot of obstacles.
“As long as I can remember I have been known as the smart, quirky kid at school,” EJ explains, “and I got teased a lot.”
The teasing was especially brutal once EJ entered middle school. By the spring of 7th grade at Western Hills, EJ began to melt down. Visits to his guidance counselor, Michael Watson, were a common occurrence. During one such visit, EJ mentioned that he wanted to take a chemistry class. When Watson offered to find some information on a summer science camp, EJ was insistent that it be a college-level course and asked for a letter of recommendation.
“He needed a confidence booster,” said Watson. Hoping for the best, Watson wrote the letter stating that EJ “possesses strong mathematical skills and has a passion for science.”
In the meantime, EJ was looking into a basic chemistry class at Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), and he was making strides toward that goal. Due to his young age and social deficits, EJ had to truly prove himself a worthy candidate for such an opportunity. Prior to enrollment, EJ met separately with the Acting Director of Enrollment Services, Terrie Kless, and an Admissions Officer John Araujo. Both explained to him that ultimately he needed the permission of the Chemistry Department Chair, Dr. Elizabeth A. Arendt. So, EJ wrote a heartfelt letter to Dr. Arendt requesting permission to take Basic Skills Chemistry.
Dr. Arendt informed him that his was “a unique request and one that will require a bit of thought.” After reading the supporting documents that EJ provided, Dr. Arendt also said that before any decision was made, EJ would have to take the Chemistry Placement Exam (CPE). This exam is designed to let CCRI know if a student is academically prepared to take classes and would be just one factor in determining his eligibility.
On Friday, June 24 (two days after completing 7th grade), EJ confidently went to the CCRI testing center and took the CPE. The following week, EJ learned that he had done exceptionally well. Dr. Arendt was impressed with EJ's scores, and she wanted to set up an interview with him. She and EJ talked for over an hour discussing his potential, the possible (if not inevitable) challenges, and the expectations of college-level courses.
Surprisingly, EJ handled himself with great aplomb. When asked what the biggest challenge might be, EJ admitted to his disorganization. Disorganization in classes is an indicator that a student will not do well, especially college-level classes in which a student is expected to work with little prompting from the professor. Considering EJ's other disabilities, he certainly had his work cut out for him. But he was tenacious, explaining to Dr. Arendt, “My future career goals are ambitious. I intend to go to Yale University and pursue a science degree—either chemistry or psychology. I'll work my hardest, study and apply myself.”
In the end, Dr. Arendt granted permission (a rare and unique occurrence) for this middle schooler to enroll as a non-matriculating student and register for the basic chemistry class. The course, taught by James McCaughey at the Knight Campus, meets Monday evenings from 6 to 9:45 p.m. September through December—a tough schedule for someone who still had to keep up with his 8th grade academic load. EJ worked with the school, his parents, and other professionals to map out strategies to combat any potential challenges.
When EJ received the results of the first chemistry quiz in September, he was pleased that he scored a 95. Although, he was initially frustrated when he realized the question he got wrong. (Instead of listing the chemical symbol for Florine as F, he wrote Fl.) During the semester, EJ has held a B average in class and maintained good grades at Western Hills.
McCaughey has enjoyed having EJ in class.
"He is very inquisitive, knows a lot already and very polite," he said. “I am humbled to have been offered such an opportunity." EJ said, adjusting his safely goggles, “I have really enjoyed the class thus far. Now, here I sit a week away from my final exam. Time flies when you’re analyzing covalent bonds!”
EJ may always be known as smart and quirky, but he has surely proven that he is quite an amazing kid!