What did the Fonz cover up?
Happy days star Henry Winkler Fonzarelli was covering up his inability to achieve at school. The cool larakin who could confidently snap his fingers and had all the girls running to satisfy his every wish had dyslexia. The outward going Fonz strutted his stuff and used the outgoing cool façade to mask this fact. He was in fact living out his nightmare of being a low achiever surrounded by middle class college students.
Henry Winkler used what many dyslexic students revert to and that is to cover up their inability to succeed at school. They become very creative about hiding the fact that they have learning issues, especially when it comes to reading and writing.
“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.”
This massive confusion of how dyslexia was viewed by society 60 to 70 years ago has not changed very much today. Whilst technology has made great strides to deal with dyslexia the stigma attached to it just will not go away.
The Fonz today
One of my students could very easily be the Fonz. He is bright, chirpy has a sense of humour and has the looks that would send girls fluttering after him. His struggles with dyslexia at the age of 29 sees him with a very bitter and uncompromising approach to trying to deal with it. To his credit he has reached out and sort help. Yet the weight of the negative programming and years of failure and frustration make it very difficult to move forward.He constantly beats up on himself as he works hard at becoming good at reading and writing. He sees this as the only way to show his real worth to society. The shame of blowing his chance at school will not be comforted even when I explain that it was not his fault. He agrees with me that the education system didn’t understand or acknowledge dyslexia when he was at school. Yet he constantly says what if I had studied and not acted like a smart so and so would have things been different?
The Fonz lets go.
Henry Winkler is a champion and a hero of dyslexic students today. At the age of 60 he looks back and sees a successful acting career with many achievements. The most important and ironical of his many achievements for him is to have his name with the title of children’s author next to it.
“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. “
Showing my student this sort of evidence as we plug away at learning to read and write to a level that he will be proud of does not make him feel any better. His response always is he has the money to do something about it. Or he was lucky enough to find out about it when he was much younger. He cannot see that this sort of mindset is more damaging to himself than dyslexia itself.
Shrugging off the negative mindset.
This heading is crucial in dealing with many issues facing people and dyslexia is no different. Whilst my student and I work hard at improving his language skills and understanding dyslexia. The real difference will only be made when my student lets go of the negative programming that he carries around with him. This is much harder than just providing excellent language activities and moral support. He needs to move on and realise that all his shame and what other people think of him was in the past and that’s where it needs to stay. Then and only then will he begin to realise his true potential in life.
Understanding and compassion
“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.”
Learning to see the whole person and not whether they write their name correctly is something most of us can learn from. Too often we make judgements without really understanding and knowing what is really happening. These judgements and actions have a dramatic effect on people. The labelling that takes place can scar people for life. However as Mr Rock so clearly demonstrates understanding and compassion can do a complete u turn on the end result.
It’s a double edged sword.
On the one hand dyslexic students need understanding and compassion to flourish and on the other hand they don’t want anybody to really know what they are going through.
My advice on this is that if you see somebody who is presenting themselves as very capable and yet somehow what they write and read does not match up with their peers or your expectations of what they should be able to do. Then its time to show compassion and understanding get to know them for who they are. Praise them for what they can do. You may have another Henry Winkler on your hands.
The quote and information used in this article was taken from
I really appreciate the impact this is beginning to have on my dyslexic student. He is now commencing to see the possibilities and not just gloom and doom.
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Wow the life change possible for people with this problem is amazing! How happy it must make them, their family, and friends. The sky’s the limit in comparison! Loddy your role in this, must be really rewarding.Keep up the good work!
Thanks Judy, it is my hope that the students who I am working with can see what is possible. This will give them the hope, inspiration and determination towards achieving their true potential. Incredibly enough they can turn a negative into a positive because they can see the big picture and creat amazing things. I hope I can inspire them to pursue their passions regardles of the challenges before them.