Monday, January 5, 2015
He jokes that it’s “all about the hair” (dark locks that we’ve seen slung over, spiked, and/ or carefully placed), but for Thomas Duncan, it’s really all about the heart.
If sitting across a table from Thomas at say, Flying M Coffee Garage in Nampa, you’ll get a clear picture from his puzzle piece tattoo that, by design, faces whoever he’s with.
“Everyone has something missing. I want people to know those things can be overcome. See how it’s dark around the heart? We all have things that are dark, but at the core is love. When I look down and see this, and when you see this, we’re reminded we’re loved. No matter who you are, or what those black things are, overcoming is at the center.”
Thomas Duncan wants to help people through teaching, inspiring, and his example of rising above the pain. Toying around with an idea for how to do that for a while now, the opportunity recently presented itself. Without any extensive planning or financial backup, The Canyon West Guitars owner seized the day and rented the basement of the building already housing his primary business, figuring if it was dead wrong, God would tell him.
He got no such sign.
Through his guitar shop, Thomas plans to collaborate with agencies working with autistic kids, helping them via the one thing that transcends most barriers: music.
Welcome to the AIM (Autistic Inclusion through Music) Project.
“You can say anything without verbal communication, just play your heart on your guitar,” Thomas says enthusiastically, “We’ll take the kids into the studios, teach them to play in a rock band setting, and then let ‘em go.”
He smiles slightly over being told not long ago that if he knew a little more about autism and autistic children, the downstairs “might not be ideal”.
As it happens, Thomas Duncan knows an awful lot about autism. He and his wife, Sandra, have an autistic child who was diagnosed at a young age. While in the process of becoming educated, Thomas began to realize he and his young son shared many of the same traits.
“That really made me wonder what was up,” he says, “as a kid, I was the ‘weird’ one, but autism? I never once suspected that, not even a little bit, since everybody’s got their own brand of weird, and that’s okay. But seeing those pieces fit together was uncanny, being an employed adult in my thirties, providing for my family. That’s a huge diagnosis to come along when you have a wife, four kids, and you’re a professional. For a while, it put me in a bad place mentally. You could compare it to looking into a mirror and seeing the self you know one day, then a totally different person the next, with a face you don’t recognize. An autism diagnosis changed everything about how I viewed myself. Every. Single. Thing.”
Overnight he began to understand why he’d awake some mornings with sensory issues, and felt he could relate quite well to what his son had and would go through. He’s grateful for modern advances that currently assist people with autism, unlike how things were three decades ago.
As a child, (and long before there was vast knowledge regarding gluten sensitivity and such), Thomas saw doctors who’d inevitably say, “Sorry. It’s just nerves. There’s nothing we can do, because there’s nothing wrong with you. You’ll be okay.”
What plagued Thomas was not something anyone else could see; he was repeatedly told to just snap out of it, leaving him alone in what he described as a legitimate, unpleasant, horrifying experience that he would have done anything to get out of.
“I was fighting an actual, developmental, real, honest thing.”
He grew up viewing himself as the square peg, but what those around him didn’t know was that due to the ultra-sensitive, unusual stress and hazards of his daily living, depression grew to the point of suicidal thoughts.
“I got tired of being the odd man out, tired of what felt like rejection and abandonment. I didn’t know why I was the way I was.”
Music was the bright spot in this youth’s life; he sang and played instruments at every opportunity. As a teenager, he approached an organization that was performing Handel’s Messiah, and was told he needed to talk to “Buck”.
Buck turned out to be a large, barrel-chested, big-voiced man with an even larger, Type A personality who had the six-foot, 125-pound Thomas sing a bass aria for him. Thomas felt he killed it, and afterwards Buck said, “I want to give you vocal lessons.”
Thomas’s mother resisted, stating that the family didn’t have the money for lessons.
Buck pointedly explained, “I said I want to give him vocal lessons.”
That, Thomas surmises, was probably what saved his life. Buck showed faith and confidence in him, taking him from a mere performer of music to a musician who came to understand the deeper theory behind the music he made. By the time Thomas was sixteen, he visited Buck’s house six days a week, practicing for approximately sixty hours. Meanwhile, Buck had Thomas act as the orchestra librarian, children’s chorus director, and allowed him to direct orchestra rehearsals.
“’Don’t let the brass get away with this, don’t let Joe rush when you get into this section, okay guys, Thomas is taking over,’ he’d say,” Thomas relates.
Buck taught Thomas to be both a leader and a man, providing situations where he absorbed lessons on people management, communication, and organization. Without knowing anything back then about Autism or Aspberger’s Syndrome, Buck simply took care of a boy who seemed to need some direction and guidance.
Thomas Duncan wants to provide that same outlet for youth in our community who feel like he once did, in an effort to prevent what he suffered. He posts the quote on social media, “(Autism) is fighting a war where the enemy’s strategy is to convince you that the war isn’t actually happening”, coming from one who “gets it”.
Since opening Canyon West Guitars, this Nampa business owner has taken three big risks. The first was opening the store with no capital, no “back up” job, and no bank financing. Inventory included sixteen sets of guitar strings, a few straps, and some “random stuff”. Within weeks of opening the store on Canyon Boulevard, the building was robbed.
Draining their checking account to be able to move downtown, (risk number two) proved to be a step in the right direction. Thomas became involved with downtown Nampa’s rejuvenation, submitting his “Psychotography” for the Phantom Gallery’s display windows, getting to know resident business owners, and even offering random downtown tours.
When told he’s “kind of the face of downtown”, he laughs in typical humble fashion, however, Thomas has built himself a family among the Nampa business blocks.
To Thomas, the AIM Project has a similar feel.
“Massive Risk Number Three,” he says, “People have been very supportive, offering ideas and help all over the place.”
The studios he’s rented are viewed as canvases that will soon be filled with kids making music.
He envisions a Friday night of AIM kids playing their hearts, with a Canyon West crew or two taking the tunes into downtown, expressing themselves in universal ways that are understandable to everyone amongst applause, whistling, and feedback that will let performers know they’re valued, important members of the community.
“Rock and roll,” smiles Thomas, “it’s gonna be going on. It’s going to be very busy, and very human.”