Henry Winkler's dyslexic hero gives kids with learning difficulties the last laugh
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By Henry Winkler
Winkler and his wife, Stacey, who is a child welfare advocate, are parents to three adult children. All of them have learning difficulties; and they're all college graduates pursuing careers that interest them. In fact, it was when his stepson was identified with learning disabilities that Winkler, at age 31, finally understood what he'd been grappling with all his life. "We had him tested in third grade, and everything they said about him, I said, 'Oh, my God, that's me!'" he recalls.
Based on his experiences as a child, as a parent, and as a supporter of various initiatives to benefit children, Winkler has developed a strong sense of what kids need to be successful. One of the essentials is friends. Hank Zipzer has two loyal friends who take his learning problems matter-of-factly, and often rely on his strengths. This was not the case for Winkler, who remembers being very socially awkward. "I was not able in any way to be successful socially," he says. "I mean, I had a nice personality, I had a girlfriend. But I didn't know quite how to be with that girl in a social situation where I was not roaming around talking to every other human being in the place, leaving her standing by herself.
"Also, something Hank has that doesn't come from his friends is resilience," Winkler adds. "He figures out, 'Okay, I've gotten myself into hot water, but there's more than one way to solve a problem.' He uses his imagination and his spirit." When Winkler talks to kids of all ages during book signings and other public appearances, he urges them to build their resilience. "I always say you have to think of yourself as one of those toys [weighted] with sand in the bottom," he says. "You punch it and it goes over, but it comes right back up again.
"Because it's so easy just not to come back up again," he adds, remembering how discouraged he sometimes became. But Winkler was fortunate enough to have an internal source of direction and drive. "What's amazing is that I was really lucky," he says. "I had a vision from the age of seven of what I wanted to do. I have no idea where it came from; all I know is that I wanted to be an actor. I had no idea how I was going to achieve it, but I knew I needed to do it."
Asked what advice he'd give parents about helping kids with learning difficulties pursue their dreams, Winkler says: "Adults' job on the earth - apart from curing cancer or figuring out the next new bicycle - is to give children a sense of self. Otherwise, that child will never be able to meet their potential." His second piece of advice flows naturally from the first: "It's really, really important," he says, "not to define yourself by the way your child succeeds - or doesn't. If you look closely at them and listen carefully, [you'll find] there's lots to celebrate about them besides [their] geometry [grades]."
His message to kids? "When I sign autographs for children I write: 'You have greatness within you.' When I speak to them, I say: 'It's your job to figure out what your gift is-to dig down deep inside yourself, get it, and give it to the world."