By Jeannette Andruss
For J.H. McGaugh Elementary school second grader Slater King, creativity is at his core.
He was playing the piano at age two. He’s been able to carry a tune since before he could utter a complete sentence. An avid photographer, one of his pictures recently advanced to the national level for a PTA-sponsored art competition.
“He has this musical brain and way of thinking that just translate across the arts,” Slater’s teacher, Tayler Martin, said.
“Slater learns by music and creative venues,” his mother, Juliette King, explained describing her youngest son as happy with a laugh that’s contagious. “He amazes me every day.”
“We don’t have a technical word for it,” Coralie Prince, Slater’s grandmother, said during a recent phone interview. “Genius is one we’ve used,” she added with a laugh that conveyed her fascination with the eight-year-old’s talents.
Coralie shared stories of how she sang to Slater when he was a baby, letting him sit on her lap as she played the piano. Then one day when Slater was about two, he decided to play himself.
“He sat down and played ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ perfectly,” Coralie recalled. “It just dropped my jaw.”
Art and music may be part of Slater’s DNA. Coralie was instrumental in establishing music programs within the Los Alamitos Unified School District. She’s spent decades teaching music and performing arts at local elementary schools.
His grandfather, John Prince, was also a music teacher, big band leader and composer who established the Jazz Studies program at Cal State Long Beach. Slater’s mother is the dance director at California Academy of Mathematics and Science and his father, Ryan King, teaches art at Coast High School in Huntington Beach.
Slater’s Start: ‘It was a very scary time’
Slater’s story becomes more remarkable when you learn about his earliest days. Slater was born a healthy baby, his mother explained, but things started to change in his first few months of life. She noticed his head was growing and he was having trouble eating.
He was diagnosed with a rare condition affecting blood flow to and from his brain. Called the vein of Galen malformation (VOGM), it’s known to cause neurological and cardiovascular impairments.
Slater’s treatment was full of challenges. He underwent an embolization to stop the VOGM but that lead to bleeding and another procedure which caused more bleeding and a stroke, landing Slater in an induced coma.
“It was a very scary time,” Juliette recalled. “We didn’t know if Slater was going to pull through and if he did what his quality of life would be.”
Finally, an internal shunt was successfully placed in his brain to drain his cerebral fluid. He has it to this day. Despite some seizures over the years, Slater’s medical condition has been relatively stable with no need for surgeries for seven years. He has been in multiple types of therapy since he was five months old and has continued to make progress in all areas.
He has been a student in the LAUSD Special Education program since preschool and his teacher at McGaugh said he has “blossomed” over the years.
“[Slater] is now walking, running, and improving his vocabulary all of the time,” Juliette wrote in an email. “McGaugh has an excellent program and an incredible staff.”
In a later interview, she emphasized how the school’s focus on teaching empathy has been uplifting. “[The students are] nice to him. They could tease him but they don’t.”
Slater also plays in a Challenger baseball league where his ten-year-old brother, Stryker, is his mentor.
Juliette admits there are unknowns for Slater’s health but she said her family remains optimistic. “We always try to look at the positive side and see how far he has come and that he is thriving and living a happy life.”
‘The Reflections [contest] is life-changing’
An example of Slater’s thriving is his recent recognition in the PTA-sponsored art competition known as Reflections.
For more than 50 years, the annual contest has accepted original artwork from hundreds of thousands of students nationwide. The submissions are based on a theme that changes each year. This year’s theme was “Look Within.” Slater submitted his photograph entitled “I Seeeee You!” Slater was the only student from LAUSD to advance from the district level to the state level and finally to the national level of competition, racking up trophies and certificates along the way.
He received an Honorable Mention from the national PTA earlier this month.
“He gets a kick out of it,” Slater’s father, Ryan, said about his son’s reaction to the awards but admitted that Slater still struggles to communicate his feelings at times. But he noted Slater was “super excited” when he received a trophy at school.
Slater’s teacher said the recognition boosted Slater’s confidence and said he talked about it in class. “Something like this that people don’t understand [is] the Reflections [contest] is life-changing. It changes the trajectory of his life.”
Another milestone was when Slater sang “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in this year’s McGaugh Idol talent show. Ms. Martin spent hours practicing with Slater to prepare. On the big day, he nailed his performance.
“I bawled. I got off that stage and just bawled,” she said.
Coralie, who played the piano for that show, said Slater is also getting interested in acting.
“We just feel so good about his situation,” Juliette said. “We’re very grateful. It’s been a long journey.”