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Personal Stories

A Man's Reach Should Exceed His Grasp

By: Henry Winkler
Henry Winkler

So as I’m reading the narration into a tape recorder, it started to dawn on me. I’m not lazy. I’m not stupid. I’m dyslexic..."

Until recently, my reach was always beyond my grasp. I had dreams…I was not the best student in the world, and my parents were strict. So I would dream a lot about grasping, but I spent most of my time merely reaching. And it was difficult to fathom the fact that I could grasp.

I’m 42 years old, and I’m very proud to say that my self image is here! It’s around my collarbone: for a long time it was around my ankles and I spent a lot of time pulling it up. That was at a time when I was known as lazy and not living up to my potential.

The idea going around in my head at that time was that I might be stupid. How could this be happening to me? My parents came from Germany; they learned English and several other languages, they could do their math in their heads…How could I be stupid? I didn’t want to be stupid, I wanted to be in the top ten percent of my class, not the bottom three.

The headmaster of my high school sent me to a psychiatrist because he wanted to know why I wasn’t achieving. So the psychiatrist said to my parents, who took copious notes, “The boy has to learn to focus!” Hooray, the problem was solved, I knew what to do. I went to the stationary store and got myself some highlighters…Blue and yellow. And I went home and I highlighted every work in the book. And it was still Greek to me! I didn’t get it; alright, maybe I had brain damage.

And I didn’t want to have brain damage but I tell you, the thought gave me comfort. And it gave me even greater comfort as keeping up with my class became harder and harder. I went to a private school in New York City, with a lot of guys who wore cordovan shoes, blue blazers, grey slacks, and a tie to school every day…they were going to Princeton. They wrote notes in the margins of the books they were reading for class…what were they writing?

So do you know what I did? I took a glass of water and sprinkled drops of it on the page…so the book looked used. I never wrote anything in my book except my name…very neatly.

For me math is out of the question. When I got change, I trusted a lot. I had no idea how much was in my palm. Reading was slow because my eyes couldn’t track, I would leave out works. And spelling was something other people could do. To this day the only way I survive is that I have a secretary in an office next to mine and I spend most of my time yelling, "How do you spell circle?"

Somewhere inside me the thought kept gnawing at me that something was wrong; something about what the outside world was telling me was not connecting with what my inside world knew. Except that my inside knowledge kept me moving forward, because I wanted to be somebody. I was tired of being a dope!

And then this surface view of myself kept throwing self doubt the size of apartment buildings in front of me, so that getting to be “somebody” was a little slower than I wanted it to be.

Because of my character on Happy Days I was asked to narrate a film for students with learning disabilities in 1976. It was called “Everybody has a Song”. Of course I wanted to help these poor kids with this problem! So as I’m reading the narration into a tape recorder, it started to dawn on me. I’m not lazy. I’m not stupid. I’M DYSLEXIC!!! Who knew? Nobody knew when I was growing up.

So as an adult I’m standing here not understanding all the concepts of the Isosceles Triangle…But, I learned to compensate. I learned to listen to my instincts, that if you will it, it is not a dream. If you are able to communicate your feelings, you too, can speak an international, very articulate language. I learned to problem solve. My friends would always have a social problem, and since I took most of my cues from the physical world around me, I was able to sit with them and tell them how they got into the problem, what it was doing to them, and how they could get out of trouble. I had no idea how I know this stuff, but lots of times I was right and it felt very good that I was able to do something for them!

When I was growing up no one knew that dyslexia might have been caused by genetics. But the fact is a lot of you do know this now. Because you do, you understand the best teacher is not necessarily the one who deals with the most facts, but who effectively allows the student to come to grips with the best part of themselves.

Throughout history the same thoughts keep coming up. Thank God for our difficulties; because through them we find ourselves! And because of difficulties we find we are not along. It gave me great comfort to hear how hard it is for other people to do the same things I can’t.

(Article taken from L.D.A.A. CALGARY NEWSLETTER, PERSPECTIVES, Vol. 17, No. 3, January 1989. Henry Winkler, former star of "Happy Days", delivered his message on dyslexia at the 1988 Conference of the Orton Dyslexia Society, Southern California Branch, Los Angeles. Permission from Evan Chesler, Executive Producer, Everybody Has a Song).

L.D.A.A. CALGARY NEWSLETTER, PERSPECTIVES, Vol. 17, No. 3, January 1989