Interview: The Esteemed Diana Hanbury King

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Today's inspiring individual is Diana King, one of the topmost influential Orton Gillingham practitioners in history, friend and mentor to the van der Vorsts, and all-around lifetime inspiration. In the course of her 54 years as a teacher, she has transformed the lives of countless young people with dyslexia by giving them hope for a normal and successful future. King has been working with dyslexic children almost longer than anyone else in the field. She is the recipient of the International Dyslexia Association Lifetime Achievement Award, among other recognitions, and continues to support and guide Steve and Susie in their dream to grow Camp Spring Creek.

Camp Spring Creek: You’re known for teaching and inspiring so many others—from students, to parents, to administrators, to today’s top teachers. But you’re also a student of life and were once in school yourself. Please share an "ah-hah" moment that you’ve had as a “learner,” inside or outside the classroom. What were you attempting to do, how did someone help you see it differently, and what did it feel like to succeed?

Diana King: What I remember best were those few moments when someone expressed confidence in me and in my ability to learn. When I was about nine, Alan Brown, a neighbor and Air Force pilot, taught me long division in a way that I understood it. He also gave me a test of digit recall and was impressed with how many I remember—I still have a high score on digit span. Then, when I was ten, I was in a classroom where the other students were learning Latin, which I had never done. I was supposed to be studying something else on my own, but then I blurted out an answer to one of the questions the teacher posed. Immediately, I was invited to join the Latin class. Finally, when I was about thirteen at school in Bermuda, Charles Violet, who also taught me to sail, asked me if I would like to be the school meteorologist. I had no idea what the word meant, but he explained that I would make daily observations of temperature, relative humidity, barometric pressure, and wind speed, and that those results would be sent into the weather bureau in Hamilton.

CSC: You’ve gone on record stating that it is possible to determine whether or not a child has a learning difference by age 4. What are the telltale signs parents and teachers can look for, even in the face of being told by many others that it is “too early to tell”?

DK: First of all, it is important to learn, not just which family members are or were dyslexic, or had difficulty with reading or speaking, but what they are or were good at. If Dad is an architect and Mom is a watercolor artist, or grandfather was an inventor, a surgeon, or an engineer, the dyslexic trait is likely to be in the family. Pay attention to handedness, not just in the immediate family, but in relatives. Does the child show signs of mixed dominance or of being late in establishing dominance? Dyslexia is more common in families where there is a history of mixed dominance. Then of course, one would like to know what the child is good at. Does he enjoy skateboarding or skiing—dyslexic individuals have an enhanced sense of balance. Does he spend hours building elaborate constructions out of Legos? Finally, what about his or her speech? Little reversals such as washerdisher or flutterby may be cute, but they are also symptomatic. Can he rhyme, or does he notice rhyme? The time to diagnose dyslexia is before the child has a chance to fail at reading.

CSC: You co-founded Camp Dunnerback and Kildonan, which have changed the lives of so many people. But despite scholarships that are available, these experiences are not available to the vast majority of children with dyslexia. What would you say to a parent who does not have extra time, energy, finances, or community resources…but has a hunch that “something’s up” with their child’s learning style? How can this parent get his or her child what is needed within the family’s means?

DK: One possibility is to investigate services that may be free. Teachers trained at the Scottish Rite Centers are well qualified, for example. Sometimes members of the Academy of Orton Gillingham Practitioners and Educators have members willing to tutor at no cost, or students under training who need a student for their practicum. If all else fails, the best bet might be home schooling. Mothers can work under supervision and work successfully, especially at the beginning stages.

CSC: Please tell our readership about the first time you met Susie and Steve, and how your lives have criss-crossed over the years:

DK: I first remember Steve and Susie as fixtures in the summer program, long before they married. Steve, a quiet and rather shy Dutchman, was a reliable member of our counseling staff and taught swimming and life-saving skills. Susie was vibrant, flirtatious, impulsive, and energetic and an enthusiastic tutor. Their marriage seemed an unlikely combination. In later years, I was able to watch them develop their dream into what became Camp Spring Creek, and raise their three wonderful children. It has been a long and meaningful friendship.

CSC: Congratulations on retiring! How are you spending your days and what’s been the most surprising about this next phase of your life?

DK: The days are never long enough for all I want to do. I garden, cook, enjoy friends, attend local concerts and art shows, watch Netflix movies, read every day—finally time for War and Peace—and try to learn as much as I can about subjects I had never studied. Since my learning has been in languages (French, German, Italian, and Russian), and I never took a science course except for botany as a requirement for my master’s degree, I have become passionate about making up for the deficit. I relish the Great Courses programs and have delved into geology, oceanography, astronomy, anthropology, and am now tackling chemistry and hope to go on to physics and calculus. I am hoping for another ten years.

We’re hoping for at least that many, Diana. Thank you for everything you do!