From the September 2016 issue of The Rotarian
In 1977, the nostalgia-fueled sitcom Happy Days was in its fifth season. Many people remember the three-part season opener, when Fonzie “jumped the shark,” but perhaps fewer recall the episode that immediately followed, when the charismatic dropout and consummate cool guy got a library card. He had taken clean-cut pal Richie Cunningham to the local library in an attempt to meet college girls. Richie walked away with his future wife, and Fonzie with his first library book.
It was widely reported that library card registration among young people spiked by 500 percent after the episode aired. The American Library Association says it could not document that, but librarians today are quick to applaud the real-world advocacy of the actor who brought the Fonz to life.
Henry Winkler was diagnosed with dyslexia at 31, not long into Happy Days’ decadelong run. Despite his early difficulties in school, he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama and went on to produce hit TV shows such as MacGyver. He has appeared on comedies such as Arrested Development (produced by former Happy Days co-star Ron Howard) and Parks and Recreation. The leather jacket he wore as the Fonz is enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution. But these days, the 70-year-old is proudest of Hank Zipzer, the children’s book series he writes with co-author Lin Oliver.
“The comedy is exaggerated; the emotions are real,” he says of his protagonist, an elementary school student modeled after his younger self. Since the first of the more than two dozen Hank Zipzer books was published in 2003, Winkler has visited classrooms around the world to meet students and give talks about learning challenges. He spoke with contributor Sallyann Price about what he has learned as a children’s book author and literacy advocate.
THE ROTARIAN: How puzzling was school for you?
HENRY WINKLER: I did not know until way later, but I had learning challenges. The school, my parents, the community around me, they didn’t quite understand what that was at the time. They used a lot of words to describe me: lazy, stupid, not living up to his potential. I’d think to myself, “I don’t think I’m stupid. I think I’m having a good thought.” I just couldn’t do the work.
Everything that I learned came through my ears and not my eyes. As hard as I tried, the skills I did have – my ability to concentrate, to stay organized – got me nowhere. I took geometry four times. I did not graduate with my class. I got my high school diploma in the mail. And you know what? From the time I finished geometry until right now, not one person has ever said the word “hypotenuse” to me. But at the time, I was humiliated. You can only fail a course so many times before it starts to affect your self-image, and that can stay with you for the rest of your life.
TR: You became famous as a character who was, literally, too cool for school. How did your own experiences inform your performance on Happy Days?
WINKLER: I made Fonzie dyslexic, but he hid that insecurity behind his tough, cool exterior. When I first auditioned and they asked me if I would play this character, I asked them, “Who does he have to be cool for when he comes home and takes off his leather jacket? If you let me show the other side of this guy, then I would love to play him.” No matter how cool somebody is, there has got to be an emotional side to their journey, and that was his.
TR: How did you discover you had dyslexia? And at 31, did a formal diagnosis make any difference?
WINKLER: I went to the Hopi Nation in Arizona over one Easter vacation with my stepson Jed, who was studying Native American culture. It was amazing, but then he came home and he couldn’t write the report. So I said to him everything that was said to me: “You’re being lazy, you’re not living up to your potential. You’re so verbal, how are you unable to write this?” We finally had him tested, and everything they said about him was true about me.
My first reaction was anger. Because all of that yelling, all of that being grounded, all of that humiliation was for nothing. Then I thought, “Now at least I know that I’m not stupid. Now at least I know that it’s not completely my fault.” Later I realized that if I hadn’t struggled with dyslexia I wouldn’t be talking to you today – that maybe fighting through this challenge gave me the strength to live the dream that everyone said would be impossible for me.
TR: What do people misunderstand about living with dyslexia?
WINKLER: About two years ago, a young girl asked to interview me for a school project about dyslexia. So she comes and sets up her camera, and we share our stories, mine from 1960 and hers from 2013. And it turned out we were the same. We grew up in different places, came from different religions and socioeconomic groups, and yet this experience was universal. That knocked me out.
I have spoken to thousands of students in classrooms all over the world, and these kids have the same experiences. I hear teachers in every language say, “I’ve explained this to you five times. What are you telling me, you don’t get it yet? At your age you should get this.” Now, there are incredible teachers who understand about learning differences and teaching the child who learns differently. It’s about looking at the student as a whole, teaching children how they learn, not how we think they should learn. We always think it’s going to cost so much money to address our problems with education and implement solutions. Creative thinking – that’s all it is.
I once met a little boy who couldn’t take a test to save his life, and he was flunking. There are so many kids like this. It’s not a matter of effort, but they are just not built for school. Then he started working as an apprentice to a plasterer, and he went from completely demeaning himself to picturing himself starting his own company. Everybody does not have to be a college whiz. Once I realized that my son was struggling with something beyond his control, all I asked was that he work and try as hard as he could. If he didn’t try, that was when there would be a consequence. If he did try, whatever came home was fine.
TR: What’s most gratifying about writing the Hank Zipzer books?
WINKLER: The sense of accomplishment of writing these books with my partner Lin Oliver – that’s No. 1. I never thought I would write a book. The first time my friend Alan Berger suggested it to me, I said, “I’m not writing a book, because I can’t. I know who I am. I’ve grown up knowing I’m stupid. I don’t care if I am famous, people don’t know my real brain.” The second time he asked me, one month later, I must have had a good pastrami sandwich or something because all I said was, “OK, I’ll meet Lin and I’ll try.” We initially signed on for four books; we recently sent the 28th to our publisher. We have written 18 books for Hank Zipzer, the World’s Greatest Underachiever, starting with the character’s first day of fourth grade. In the first and second novels, he finds out that he might have a learning challenge. Then we decided to write the Here’s Hank books, where the character is in the second grade and he’s just beginning to learn to read.
No. 2: The children read the books and laugh, even kids who’ve hated reading in the past. We made them situation comedies, which Lin and I both have experience with. The way to a child’s heart is comedy, no matter what the subject, so if we don’t laugh, it doesn’t go in the book. Our publisher, Grosset, found a font called Dyslexie that was developed by a Dutch graphic designer with dyslexia. It makes it easier for the eye to negotiate the words on the page, so that’s one less barrier. And now we get letters from kids and families saying the same thing using different sentences: “How did you know me so well?” “How did you know my sister?” “Don’t worry, Henry, you’re not alone.”
No. 3: The chance to encourage kids. I walk in and say the same thing in every classroom: “You have greatness in you. You are not defined by school. It does not matter how you learn, it only matters how you try.” I meet these children and I ask them, “Tell me, kids: Who knows what they’re great at?” There is not a child in any country, in any language, who does not know what they’re great at. And whatever it is that these children are great at is incredibly valuable. This country is not going to stay great if every one of them doesn’t meet their potential.
TR: How have teachers, families, and mainstream students responded to the books?
WINKLER: Most of the characters are not dyslexic. They’re Hank’s friends and family who support him. His younger sister knows everything and she’s a reptile whiz. She wears her pet iguana around her neck like a scarf. They don’t get along, but when the chips are down, when Hank has to get a certain grade in long division or he can’t be in the school play, his sister helps him out. And then we have Hank’s group of friends, who come from diverse backgrounds. Kids write us and they say they appreciate Hank’s friends because they don’t judge him, they just love him because he’s imaginative and he makes them laugh.
There was an entire county in West Virginia that assigned Hank Zipzer for summer reading. The teachers, the parents, the kids, and the school board members all read the books and then they all had something to talk about, which opened dialogues that were never there before. And because we use humor and we don’t talk down to the kids, the parents find stuff that engages them too. When I travel to classrooms, the parents and the teachers fill up behind the kids – they come to see the Fonz. I tell them, “Your job is to make sure that you see each child and you do not let their self-image plummet like a stone to the bottom of the ocean.”
TR: What’s next for Hank Zipzer?
WINKLER: We’re writing more Here’s Hank books. In the one that just came out, Hank has to write a poem for “We Love Nature Day” but is stumped on what to say.
Hank’s taught me something about writing: When you write a book, you start with an outline, and as you’re writing, the characters take on lives of their own. And no matter what you thought your story was, you have to go with it.