The Miseducation of the Fonz

Best known for his charismatic role on Happy Days, Henry Winkler now spends his time spreading awareness about dyslexiaa learning disability he struggled with growing up.

Henry Winkler enters the commencement ceremony for Southern Connecticut State University in 2005. (Bob Child/AP)

Henry Winkler applied to 28 colleges as a high school senior in 1963. He was accepted to only two of them. The 69-year-old actor—best known for his role as Fonzie on the sitcom Happy Days—was such a bad student he wasn't even allowed to graduate with his class at the all-boys private high school he attended in New York City. He got his diploma in the mail only after taking the same geometry class eight times in a row over the course of four years, during the summers and regular school semesters, and finally passing with a D-.

"All of that humiliation, and all of that frustration, and all of that lack of self," Winkler recalls. "I thought, 'What, am I the only one who's not getting this? This is crazy. It means nothing in my life.'''

Winkler, who went on to attend Emerson College in Boston, has a learning disability. But he didn't know that until well into his adult life, years after he was first cast as The Fonz—a persona that TV Guide has described as one of the greatest television characters of all time. Until he was diagnosed with dyslexia—which is believed to affect as many as one in five students and is the most common of all language-based learning disabilities—Winkler figured he was stupid. The the confident and commanding Fonzie was a facade for a man who'd spent his entire life assuming his intelligence just wasn't, as he put it, "up to snuff."

In reality, Winkler's brain was simply wired a little differently, as would end up being the case with all three of his children. Dyslexia is a neurological, likely genetic disability that can make it difficult to recognize the basic sounds of speech in letters. The inability to connect letters with sounds makes it challenging to blend those sounds into words, which can ultimately affect comprehension. People with dyslexia tend to struggle with a range of language skills, including reading, spelling, writing, and pronunciation—but they're often extremely intelligent, and some experts even describe the disorder as a form of creative genius. Unfortunately, widespread ignorance and limited funding mean that dyslexic students often fall through the cracks, pigeonholed into special-education classes or, like Winkler, chronically struggling in school.

Since learning of his dyslexia at age 31, Winkler has become an advocate for raising awareness about the widely underdiagnosed disability and encouraging schools and parents to properly support children who have it. That endeavor includes two children's book series—Hank Zipzer and Here's Hank—which chronicle the humorous adventures of Hank, a boy struggling with dyslexia. Winkler and co-author Lin Oliver have already produced 28 books for the ongoing series, including Here's Hank: Fake Snakes and Weird Wizards, which comes out February 10. I recently spoke with Winkler about the book series, his dyslexia, his childhood, and what his experiences growing up have taught him about education reform.

Alia Wong: How did the series come about?

Henry Winkler: First, let me just say that I don't even know what it is in my life that [made this possible]. This has fallen out of the heavens, and all of a sudden I'm part of a writing team, all of a sudden I'm doing what was one of the biggest fears in my life growing up. I didn't read books, and here I am writing books that kids are laughing and identifying with. That's already a mind blower.

[Lin Oliver and I] met through a mutual friend, who had suggested to me to write books about my learning challenges for kids. When it first happened [in 2002], when it was first suggested that I write books, I said, "That's crazy—I'm stupid, I'm a terrible reader, I was the worst student. I can't write a book!" And I dismissed it completely. About a year later [my friend]  suggested it again and said, "This time I'll introduce you to Lin Oliver."

Wong: At that point, already in your late 50s, you were still convinced you were stupid and a terrible reader?

Winkler: There's one of the first lessons that I have learned along this journey: We as adults cannot joke with kids about, "Ah, don't be a moron," "Ah, act your age," "Ah, you're so stupid." If you do that when the child is young enough and you do it often enough, the child starts to wear it, wear that name-calling like a sweater. And, see, if it fits, sometimes you just imprint it on yourself—for the rest of your life until you work it out … We have to teach children how they can learn, not what we think they should learn. That's another thing that I have learned on this journey.

Wong: Had you already been diagnosed [with dyslexia] by the time you got your gig on Happy Days?

Winkler: No, that was years later. I got Happy Days on my 27th birthday … When I was 31, [my oldest son] Jed was tested in the third grade, and that's when I found out I had something with a name … When we would sit around the table on Monday mornings and read the script, I would stumble at least once or twice a paragraph. And then I was diagnosed, and I made fun of it—I covered it in humor. But I was humiliated.

Wong: How did your colleagues on the show handle your disability?

Winkler: When I didn't know what was going on for the first year or two, they laughed. I'm sure it was frustrating because I kept breaking up the rhythm of the joke or the scene. One line depends on another line—it depends on that flow coming in like a tributary from a river, and my tributaries kept getting like there was a beaver in the middle of them making a dam.

Wong: How did you overcome those obstacles? It seems like acting really depends on a person's ability to read and memorize lines, memorize how words look on a page.

Winkler: I was able to memorize pretty quickly. So, God giveth and God taketh away

… You learn to compensate, and each person compensates differently.

Wong: Why do you think that, even to this day, dyslexia is still extremely stigmatized, that there's a lot of misunderstanding about what it is and how to accommodate it?

Winkler: As I travel around, I tell my story about where I started and where I am now. And you meet people who are from all walks of life, and you meet several people who work in government. And I used to say, "You know, we talk so much about children in America, and we actually do very little because they don't vote." And I wasn't far off from wrong. I wasn't far off. As I talk to these men and women who are politicians, what they reveal to you is that there are no contributions from children. There's no money in it. So it's really not a major priority. It just sounds awfully good to talk about our future.

I think that prison cells are planned by test results in the third and fourth grade. One out of five kids has some sort of learning challenge. That's a big population to just leave behind. Teachers have this herculean task of having to teach the same amount of information in the same amount of time to the fastest child and [to] the one who learns the slowest. Somebody is going to fall through the cracks. Somebody is getting short-shrifted.

Wong: What are some solutions, then? Clearly, there's not enough money to come up with alternatives.

Winkler: When I'm in a classroom, I always suggest that there are grandparents—maybe they're retired, sitting at home—who are really good at reading, really good at art, really good at math, who could come in sit in a desk in the back and pick up some of the slack. And that doesn't cost much money. And it makes everybody feel good: The student feels good, the grandparent feels useful, the teacher is relieved ...

I've finally come to the conclusion that it's only a point of view that can change the way we think. It's probably not a great idea to teach to a test that some children who are not great test-takers aren't taught to.

I tour around America, England, Italy … And I'm telling you—the children, they laugh at the same jokes, they are the same. And when I ask them, "Anybody know what they're good at?" every child knows what they're great at. They raise their hands as if their arms are going to fly out of their socket: logarithms, soccer, painting, horseback riding, math, spelling, being a friend ...  I wrote a book when I was [in my 50s] because I was so scared of all the words inside the covers. I'm telling you, the potential that we knowingly just leave behind, just let drip on the floor like water from a faucet, is shocking to me.

I think that if you just make sure that a kid's self-image is buoyed—because it plummets like a rock to the bottom of the ocean when they're not doing well and then it becomes a vicious cycle—then they meet their destiny. With our kids, we said, "Look, as long as I get the feeling that you're trying as hard as you possibly can, whatever you bring home from school will be fine. If we get the feeling that you're not trying at all, that's when there will be a consequence" ...

I live by two words: tenacity and gratitude. Tenacity gets you where you want to go, and gratitude doesn't allow you to be angry along the way.

Wong: Do you think you would have ended up differently had your experiences not gone the way they had, if you had been diagnosed earlier and been in a supportive school environment?

Winkler: Maybe I would've felt differently. I spent so much time of my life worried because I always felt less than. I'm now thinking that not only do we have to teach children how they learn and not how we think they should learn, we also have got to have a class every day that teaches self-esteem because without that everything else is poop. I'm starting to think, and I bet so many people are way, way ahead of me, that a child's self-esteem is the beginning and the end of living.

Wong: What has the parenting experience been like, particularly since discovering dyslexia runs in your family?

Winkler: My first son [and I], we went to visit the Hopi Nation [in Arizona] … When we got home after all these wonderful experiences, my son had to write a report. And he wrote, like, three lines smudgy. And I said everything that was said to me: "Go back upstairs. You didn't put any time in it. You're being lazy. You're not concentrating. You're so verbal, you're so funny, I know you can do it put your mind to it." He couldn't write the report. We had an occupational therapist test him—and when we went in for the result everything that she said about our son was true about me. And I thought, Oh my god—I'm not stupid, I'm not lazy ... And all of that grounding, yelling, stress was for nothing. Because I wasn't going to get it. And my son wasn't going to get it.

Winkler: I am so angry at myself that I wasted so much time not doing now what has become a passion—only because I said, "I can't" instead of "You know what? I'm just going to try. Then I know whether I can do it or not."

Wong: What has it been like writing a book?

Lin and I, yesterday morning, wrote the first chapter of our 28th novel. Holy moly. We found that we don't write down to the kids—we just write comedies with the real truth, of the frustration, of trying to look up a word in the dictionary … They're not self-help books. It's not like, Woe is me, I got a problem. It's I'm trying, I really am. Hank Zipzer's cup is half full—he just spills everywhere. But it's comedy first. We make kids laugh.

Wong: I wanted to ask you about the role of comedy. What is it about these stories that instilling them with humor is so important to your mission?

Winkler: They say that food is the way is the front door of a man's castle. So [with] comedy, the kids don't know that they're doing something they can't do—they're just enjoying themselves, and it propels them to the next sentence. It makes them feel good and they're having a good time while they're reading. And it works for everybody—everybody likes to laugh.

Wong: Are the books written for all types of learners, including those without dyslexia, too?

Winkler: Yes! It's not about just that he's dyslexic—he happens to be dyslexic. His friends, Frankie and Ashley … They don't judge Hank. The kids love Hank. They love that he has friends that really find him funny.

Wong: I know the adventures of Hank Zipzer are loosely based on your experience. What are some of the similarities and differences between the series and your life?

Winkler: [The character] Mr. Rock is based on my high school music teacher. He literally said one sentence to me: "When you get out of here, you're going to be great. You're going to be fine."

And Ms. Adolf—Hank's teacher in the third, fourth, and fifth grade—was my actual teacher, the worst teacher on the planet.

Winkler: Well, there was a teacher at Emerson College … She understood me and allowed me to be confused and whatever it was that I was in class and still be able to somehow negotiate the material. And then you never forget that—I graduated in '67, so that was '65, '66? And that kind of energy, that kind of compassion, that kind of understanding stays with you forever. Outside of the family, the teacher is the most powerful influence on a child.

Wong: Are there other teachers in your life like Mr. Rock that you recall as being particularly supportive of you?

Wong: What advice would you give to teachers today?

Winkler: The student who is acting up in the class probably didn't wake up in the morning and go, "Yeah, I think I'll be an idiot today." What happens is parents, teachers—they all think, "Oh my God, if I could only control him, her." "Oh my god, if I could only get him to sit down and focus." There has got to be another way, there's got to be something that totally engages that child. And you have to find what that is and send them in that direction, which might not be subtraction [or whatever subject you're teaching].

Wong: Were there any classes in school that you really did excel at and enjoy?

Winkler: Biology. Some of it was really, really complicated, but we dissected a frog, and I was able to do that and absolutely be precise and absolutely see the inside of life. That is what I remember the most.

Wong: What do you hope the book projects you're working on will achieve ultimately?

Winkler: That kids understand the kids [with learning disabilities] in their classes and instead of making fun of them, realize they can help them … instead of diminishing yourself and being a bully.

Once you're aware there's no going back.