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Henry Winkler's dyslexic hero gives kids with learning difficulties the last laugh

Learn how actor Henry Winkler transformed his own unhappy experiences with dyslexia into stories of resilience and hope.

By Henry Winkler

To his great surprise, veteran actor Henry Winkler has carved out a new career for himself as a children's author.  Having struggled - and suffered - throughout his school years with unidentified dyslexia, it's still hard for him to imagine his name even appearing in the same sentence with the words "author" or "book."  But, Winkler and his co-author, Lin Oliver, have completed nine novels in their series, Hank Zipzer: The World's Greatest Underachiever, which recounts the hilarious adventures of a resourceful, wisecracking fourth-grader - who also happens to have dyslexia. 

Winkler, who recently turned 60, graduated from the Yale University School of Drama and has achieved a successful 30-year career as an actor, director, and producer.  Although he's received many honors for his work, he's probably still best known and loved for his role as the definitively cool Arthur "The Fonz" Fonzarelli in the 1974-84 television comedy series Happy Days, co-starring well-known director Ron Howard. 

Winkler felt anything but cool during his own childhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the 1950s and 60s.  "When I was growing up," he recalls, "no one knew what learning challenges were.  So, I was called 'stupid,' 'lazy,' and 'not living up to my potential' - because I was very verbal, and I guess I had a sense of humor."  As a result, Winkler often felt that the person he was inside was invisible to others. "Inside you feel one way, and people are telling you that you are another way," he says, "and I couldn't reconcile that."

He does remember one successful moment as a student: Winning a dance contest at a private school for boys he attended in New York.  "That did give me a sense of belonging," he recalls. "But I wanted to be an actor, and I wasn't even able to do some of the school plays because my grades were so low I wasn't allowed to participate in extracurricular activities."

Winkler has clear memories of one adult in his life who saw and encouraged the intelligent, creative boy who occupied the same body as the floundering student: "Mr. Rock, who was my music teacher, believed that I would achieve something; but everyone else told me I wouldn't achieve anything," Winkler remembers.  Asked what qualities made Mr. Rock different from other grownups in his life, Winkler replies:  "He was an adult who was quiet enough to see the actual human being in front of him, and not who he expected the person to be. Children have multiple layers; they are what they show you on the outside, and the depth of their greatness is on the inside."

Unlike the young Winkler, Hank Zipzer has several adults in his life who believe he'll succeed somehow, in spite of school.  For example, in contrast to Winkler's strict and demanding real-life parents, Hank Zipzer's mom and dad, though often baffled by his behavior, do appreciate and try to connect with him. The scene below from Day of the Iguana, shows Hank's dad at his most sympathetic.  Father and son are playing Scrabble®, and his dad finally really gets that Hank cannot see the spelling error he's made on the game board.  Hank is the narrator.

…That's what I'd been telling them ever since the subject of spelling first came up.  I can't do it.  I try and try, but my brain just won't picture the words.  I know my letters but they won't go into words.  Or at least words that anyone would recognize.

"I'm sorry, Dad," I said.  "I guess I'm a real loser in Scrabble."

My father was quiet for a long time.  I didn't know if he was mad or sad or surprised or all of those things….

"I could try again, Dad," I said.  "I'll concentrate really hard this time."

My dad smiled at me.

"How about chess, Hank?" he said.  "I really feel like a game of chess."

"Wow, so do I!" I said.

I am a whiz at chess.

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."

Comments from readers

"I .know exacctly where henry is coming from i,m 43 and only had it confirmed when I was 42 that i am dislyxic. I manager a career up to store manager with a team of 8 but could not do the career I wished to years ago nursing as i have a problem filling application form some time other form. until i havve done them a few times. I am now getting henrys books for my boys to read age 4 and 6 at present we do not know if the are dislyxic or not but i think the message is still true to any child they have greatness in them and we need to help them find it. I would love henry to come to my son school and tell the chilren his story so many could get so much from him . "
"Want to know about Henry Winkler his way of helping dyslexic children "
"Hi Henry I am dyslexic and working on a multi sensual eBook solution to empower the user to comprehend using their strongest sense - visual. I need to see the meaning and want books delivered in a better form using the technology available to us. I need you advise? Please contact me Angela Patchell "
"I have an 11 year old Dyslexic son that has only recently been diagnosed. I have known for many years that he most likely Dyslexic but the schools have always argued with me that he was simply not trying hard enough or that he just didn't want to do the work. They kept telling me that he had attention deficit. I knew better. I was constantly at the principals office, but not because my son was misbehaving. I was there because I was determined to get him the help that he so desperately needed. After 3 years of complaining and them keeping him back one year. I finally got a individual educational plan (iep) done for him this week. They are going to do what they can to finally help him with his disability and learn themselves what they can do in order to help him learn to the level he should. We are downloading a program onto an ipad that he will be able to take to school daily, the program allows him to read the books that are being read in class, he can slow it down or speed ! it up as needed. He will read it on the screen while a commentator also reads. This will allow him to hear and read at the same time. We are hoping that this will help him put those words together that he in the past couldn't. Through my research I have found that there are two types of dyslexia. There is one type where the phonetics of the words are the problem, this is not the type he has, which explains why he was always doing well on a spelling test but could not read well when it was put in front of him. The type that he has keeps him from reading certain things because if the word does not look like it sounds he is unable to decode it and figure it out. I am not completely sure what it is called, but I know that my husband has the same problem. He will put words where they do not belong, and remove words when they are truly there. This causes the most problems with his comprehension. He is 11 and in the 4th grade because of the set backs, even though the intelligence ! test stated that he was very smart when it came to anything ve! rbal, anything written was definitely below average. I am trying to purchase the entire set of Henry Zipzer books, but have not been able to find the entire set, does anybody have any suggestions. "I am so excited that I was able to show him other people that were famouse that has the same problems that he does. Maybe reading these books with/to him will help him feel more confident in himself. "
"I agree wih the comment mad of 2/2/12. They should have schools to dyslexia children instead o them struggling throughout their life!!!!!!!!!!!! "
"i have a eight year old son with dyslxia. He is in the third grade in public school. The teachers always tell me he could try harder and pay more attention. That wasnt the case! Every day my son struggles in school, there is so support from the department of education, they don't reconize dyskexia, they call it a learning disability. I called many people to give mychild the free and appropriate education. I even went to a meeting to meet the school chancellor i presented my question to him why doesn't the board of ed reconize dyslexia ? No answer he told my name and number three week later no phone. I called back they stated they lost of paaaper! Tell all complain about the students not doing well, but when you ask for help nobody cares. The board of ed needs to start all over bring back phoncis,black boards,and sit in rows not 5 to a table. they depend on other kids to teach others i thought that was a teachers job. Teachers are just teaching for the money. in real world ! our taxes are paying their salaries. Then they give you the hold over letter, which they could put it where the sun doesn't shine. Always be the voice for your child and never give up. Instead of a child being evaluate the evey child has a iep today, what is that telling you? If a teacher in special ed went to school for that i wonder if they taught them how to handle children with special needs. They always tell me they cant force my son to do his work. then they also say they have 27 other children to work with. so why am i sendind my child to school? The school loves it because they get the funding for it. So with all the funding what do they do with it? It sure does go to the children , that needs extra help and support. The children are only a number they only care about passing the state test. Then when son comes home i become a teacher with three hours of homework a night. so i'm a teacher at home with no pay. My son is struggling in reading i purchase clicknkids it! seems to be working. I wish he had less homework and more ti! me to work on he program, he will learn more than he does in six hours of school. I will not give up until i get the right services that my child deserves!!!!!! "
"My son coincedently is named Hank, he is in the eleventh grade and he struggles with Dislexia. I find it so frustrating that their is no real help and very little understanding with the teachers, he gets very frustrated with the pressures put on him by school. As a mother it is heart breaking to see a great artistic thinking mind, a boy with great leadership skills feel less than enough because he understands and sees things diffrent than the main streem. Wich can you imagine life without the creative mind and people that see things diffrently we would not be were we are today without them! "
"I'm a 65 year old woman who is Dyslexic. I am raising my 12 year old grandson who has had a terrible life so far. First his mother never bonded with her son, leaving him with us 80% of the time. My son got full custody and he lived here caring for the boy with us for the next 4 years. In that time, my son met a girl and they got married. His wife adopted his son and it looked like things would be nice for Brant, but only for one year. My son and his new wife became pregnant for their own child. From the beginning, Brant new mom was abusing him. She did things like pick him up by his neck and throwing him in bed, locking him in his room and leaving the house, she would tell Brant that he was too dirty to touch his new brother Then about a year after the baby was born, Mom told the police that Brant (at age 8 and 45 lbs) tried to kill her and her baby. Brant was taken to a lock down facity for children (over 100 miles from his home) and kept for tests for 5 days. Th! e doctor found that my grandson was fine. The day that my son went up to pick his son up, his wife packed up and told Brant that he was a nasty, dirty, bad child and she was leaving his father because of that. She would never come back unless he learned to be a good boy. The doctors wanted my son and his wife in counseling. My son and grandson went, but his wife refused. For a while (5-6 months) things SEEMED to be fine, but my son was falling into a deep depression. He lost his job, his house, his cars, everything, so he felt there was nothing to live for and was going to kill himself. We were called and we were able to get him into a hospital for a few days, but that was not enought. We took custody of Brant and his father went to a hospital for a month at which point his insurance cut out, so did the hopsital. He is fair right now, but can't care for Brant. We have had him for 3 years now, and he is doing ok. He is making honor roll, he finally goes outsid! e to play without us being with him. He will ride his bike do! wn the street and back once in a while, but for the most part he finds his fun in computers, 360 xbox, Wii games, ipod and his ipad. He still has many fears, and we are working on these. I am writing to you because you are a star and have a disabilty like him. I want him to know that he can do it too. I want him to understand that the past is the past and we have to look forward. set goals, and know that it is in his hands to make his life what he wants it to be. His father may never be able to take him back (Brant seems fine with this. However, I'm not sure). He has an e-mail and I was wondering if you could write him and let him know your story. It would give him hope and faith in himself. Shirley Warren "
"just got the news my son is dislexic and would really like some usfull web sites if u can help please post then for me thank you very much x "
"watched Henry OBE on Loose Women (ITV in UK) this morning and was enthralled by what he had to say. I need a copy of this page as I would like to show it to my lovely 23yr old grandson and I would like to follow through with the related articles named on this page. I am about to move in to share a house with my grandson and would like to be able to support him as much as I can by understanding him He is a very talented young man who has been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome."
"i have a grandson that strugles with the same thing with a lot of other things i wouldlove to find a copy of his book "
"it is a really good website because it helped with my homework abuot henry winkler and dyslexia "
"I would like more information about where Henry Winkler is appearing, and talking about his books on Dyslexia, and whether it is possible to see his show or talks."
"Dear Sir or Madam. As a young woman with a disability, there are lots of things I can't do. I love books and really admire actor Henry Winkler who helps people like himself who are Dyslexic. I tried to contact him, but had no joy, but found your website, by mistake. I'm impressed. Your Sincerely, Helen."
"Throughout my life I have struggled with dyslexia. Being a student with a disability, my parents and I have often heard that my only hope for success was to get married to some one with success. The funny thing is, I tended to believe that the only success that I would achieve would be the success that some one else gave me. I have a wonderful role model that I really never look at as a role model, and that is my father. He is a very successful business man, (farmer) who happens to have dyslexia as well. Yet for most of my life I fell in to the trap of what others deem of a learning disabled person was, is or should be. Today I am a special education teacher with a master degree in education. I have learned that I am the maker of my destination. I have not only learned this from my father but from myself as well. Being a special education teacher of a Tennessee middle school, I learned to use my disability in order to teach my students that they too can achieve success if they don’t give up. I often tell them, if you want something bad enough you will do it. It will not come easy but you can do anything in life if you want it bad enough. Another thing that helps explain, and reinforce this belief to my students is stories such as Mr. Winkler’s. This is how I motivate students, that most people have given up on. These students are our future, and what we teach, show, and lead them to will make a difference in our world. I live my life by example and I am only as good as my students. Thank you, "