My own childhood was so difficult because of undiagnosed dyslexia. I was told I was stupid, lazy and that I wasn’t living up to my potential. My parents constantly grounded me for bad grades and I didn’t see the moon for months. Even then, I still didn’t get it. My German father used to call me “Dummer Hund”. For those of you who don’t speak German, that means “Dumb Dog.” Reaallly supportive parents!
When I was growing up, I was told I would never achieve anything. I became the class clown to cover up my shame and humiliation because I knew I wasn’t keeping up. I didn’t feel stupid inside but when, as a child you’re told that you are stupid, you start to believe it.
Somewhere inside me, from the age of seven, I knew I wanted to be an actor, and I kept that dream in the center of my mind. Putting one foot in front of the other, I finally graduated and went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama in 1970.
Life as an actor wasn’t easy – reading scripts was a massive challenge. I learned to improvise. I reduced whole paragraphs to sounds to give the “essence” of the character. When I was working on Happy Days, that’s where The Fonz’s “Aaayy” came from. And I added “Whoa,” which came from my favorite sport at the time, horseback riding.
As well as acting, I’ve now carved out a career as a children’s author, with my writing partner, Lin Oliver. At one time, the thought of my name and the word author being in the same sentence would have made me laugh out loud. But this is what I learned in my life: YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU CAN DO UNTIL YOU TRY. We’ve written two series of novels for children – Ghost Buddy, Hank Zipzer and Here’s Hank. Hank is a funny, adventurous schoolboy who just happens to have dyslexia. His glass is always half full. He just spills it everywhere. It’s now a top-rating TV series on the BBC.
Hank is me – the neighborhood, the stores, the park, the school, and even Ms. Adolf – the worst teacher in the universe – are all taken from my life. I often get mail from readers asking: “How do you know me so well?” and parents exclaiming that their children, who would never have attempted to read a book before, love reading and laughing about Hank Zipzer and continue to read though the series.
By Henry Winkler