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Actor, author Henry Winkler: 'There is greatness in every child'
Fifth-grader Hank Zipzer is a funny and resourceful guy. He’s also dyslexic. Zip’s co-creator, Henry Winkler, is all those things too. In many ways, the fictional boy and the real-life man are one and the same.
“I never actually flooded my classroom,” Winkler said, over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, “but on a trip for Christmas I did lose my homework.”
Known across generations as cool guy Arthur ‘Fonzie’ Fonzarelli from 70’s sitcom “Happy Days,” actor and producer Winkler has added a new medium to his entertainment rundown. He is co-author, alongside children’s television producer Lin Oliver, of the best-selling series “Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever.” The books are based in part on Winkler’s own childhood, as he navigated the corridors of elementary school with undiagnosed dyslexia.
Winkler will speak on the 17th and final book in the series, “A Brand-New Me!” at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 2, at the Bainbridge High School Commons.
“The emotional journey and the frustration of Hank is my life, and the humor Lin and I exaggerated,” Winkler said. He and Oliver recently wrapped up the series as Hank moved on to middle school. “It was so emotional that I cried twice while we were writing (the final book). I don’t know if I’m supposed to admit that or not.”
Winkler talks on the series with the kind of enthusiasm a kid has for his favorite baseball team; he effuses the Zipzer series message as someone who’s lived it.
“No matter how you learn, no matter at what rate you learn, that has nothing to do with how brilliant you are,” he said. “There’s always more than one way to solve a problem.”
The Hank Zipzer narrative is as playful and lively as math class isn’t. Its cast of characters includes Frankie and Ashley, Hank’s two best friends who love him despite his differences; Ms. Adolf, who Hank calls the worst teacher in the world; Hank’s nemesis Nick McKelty and Cheerio, Hank’s attention-deficit wiener dog. Hank finds himself in all kinds of predicaments: In “I Got a ‘D’ in Salami” he accidentally slips his report card into a meat grinder when trying to hide it from his parents, in “Niagra Falls, or Does It?” his paper-maché waterfall floods his classroom and in “The Curtain Went Up, My Pants Fell Down” Hank’s leading role in the school play turns sour when the class bully steals his much-needed belt.
Hank lives in the same apartment building Winkler did as a child, rides the same Broadway bus and goes to the same school, PS 87. The books are first and foremost meant to be funny, Winkler said. But they’ve accomplished much more than that, as the series has become a form of children’s entertainment that transcends learning styles.
Dyslexia, classified as a learning disability, often shows itself as a difficulty in reading. Studies estimate that between 5 and 17 percent of people are dyslexic. One in five kids has a learning challenge of one form or another, Winkler said.
“Kids say to me, ‘how did you know me so well?’” he added, of those who have read the series. “Parents write and say ‘I walked by my child’s bedroom and I actually heard them laughing.’ Teachers say that a child who has no self-esteem, who knows that he or she’s not doing well at school, reads ‘Hank’ and realizes they’re not alone.”
Winkler, 64, was not diagnosed with dyslexia until he was 31, when he took his son, who was having trouble in school, to a physician. They shared the same symptoms and suddenly Winkler had terminology, an actual condition, to associate with the many challenges he had faced in school.
“I went ‘Holy mackerel! I’ve got something with a name, I’m not just stupid,’” he said. “Then it took me until like last Wednesday to believe that statement, because once you’re imprinted it’s difficult to get rid of that.”
Dyslexia is genetic, and all three of Winkler’s children have the disorder. He recalls arguments and punishments during his childhood that didn’t have to be, had dyslexia been a more well-known condition at the time. Winkler remembers fighting with his father, who didn’t understand why he wasn’t bringing home good grades.
“I swore to myself every single night that I would be a different parent and my children could always, always have a point of view,” he said. Through the ‘Hank’ series, he encourages kids to remember that there is always someone who can help them, that they are not just a cog in the standardized machine of the current school system.
“There is greatness in every child, and it is their job to figure out what their gift is and then dig it out and give it to the world,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that after everything is said and done, as long as you are a wonderful citizen in the world, it does not matter — and this is heresy — whether you know geometry or not.”
Winkler never once thought he’d someday be an author, until he and Oliver came up with the idea for ‘Hank’ over lunch one afternoon. Now, they have a symbiotically creative partnership.
“We have a wonderful time and argue over every word, every rhythm,” he said.
Winkler still faces some challenges brought on by dyslexia, but just as Hank has taught his readers, he has worked to find his own solutions.
“You never outgrow your dyslexia, you learn to negotiate your dyslexia,” he said. “You learn strategies and everyone has their own. The fact is that you bump up against your dyslexia all the time in the world. It is not designated and it is not confined to school. It’s everywhere. It’s getting lost when you’re going to an appointment because you can’t follow directions very well.”
Winkler, also known as incompetent lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn on cult favorite “Arrested Development” and as a side banana in a bevy of big-screen Adam Sandler vehicles, remains busy on the small screen: He’s currently shooting scenes for the second season of USA’s “Royal Pains,” which airs in June. He also appears on Cartoon Network’s meta-comedy (“Do you know what that means?” he asks, “I don’t either, so there you go.”) “Children’s Hospital,” which is based on a popular internet series and premieres in August.
To learn more, visit www.hankzipzer.com. WU