My best teacher - Henry Winkler

18th December 2009 at 00:00
The `Happy Days' star was considered a `dumb dog' because of dyslexia and now writes books for kids about underachievers

School was unbelievably difficult for me. I never passed anything because I'm extremely dyslexic. I always felt "less-than", and that was really dangerous and hurtful. I had friends, but I was also the class clown. I had to achieve in some way. I claimed that identity of being funny.

My parents escaped Nazi Germany and had no concept of learning challenges. So I was punished. I would be grounded for six weeks at a time until I improved. And of course I wasn't going to improve from now until the end of the earth.

My best high school teacher was Donald Rock, who taught us music at McBurney School for Boys in Manhattan. The reason he was so influential was because he said to me: "I promise you, when you get out of here, you will be fine." He had that confidence in me, and that one phrase I carried with me all the way.

I think Mr Rock was in his late 40s or 50s. He was quite natty - always dressed with a tie - and was bald. He was respectful to the students and classes were fun. We sang Gregorian chants, but I was so bad that when we would go as a choir to sing in public, I was always asked to mime. I didn't mind - I understood that I sounded like a duck who had just been shot.

I just had to be in the choir so that I could be in the school musical. I wanted to go into acting for as long as I could reason. I always had a big personality and I was given the main roles in the musicals, even though I couldn't sing.

However, most of the time I couldn't perform because you had to have a C average, and I flunked most things. When we got into the 10th grade (Year 11], we had to do geometry. Now I have never used geometry in my life. But because I could not pass it, I was stuck not doing the play. My teachers told me that I was lazy, I was stupid and wasn't fulfilling my potential.

Self-image is the beginning and the end of living. A damaged self-image stops kids having healthy relationships and stops them achieving. I went on to study child psychology as a minor at university (my major was theatre), and restoring children's self-image and making it shine brightly is something I believe is of utmost importance.

One of the things that did give me a good self-image at school was dancing. I would win the dance contests, doing the limbo and rock and roll. There weren't many opportunities for dance: it was an all-boys' school, and a completely academic atmosphere. I wore a blue blazer, slacks and a tie every day. But dances were held at the socials, when you brought a date, or when we had dances with the girls' schools.

After university, I went to graduate school at Yale to do a masters degree. My parents called me "dumb dog". So I called them and said; "dumb dog got into Yale". Of course, I didn't get in academically. I went to the drama school, but now I have a masters degree from Yale. They were not supportive, as my father wanted me to take over his business. But when Happy Days took off, they were very proud. But that was too late: you have to be proud of your children because they breathe.

Mr Rock is now a character in the novels I write, Hank Zipzer: The World's Greatest Underachiever, which is a comic look at my growing up with learning challenges. The music teacher in the books is based on Mr Rock and he completely understands Hank. The best thing is that reluctant readers read one Hank Zipzer book, and then they read five. Aside from my three children, my books are my proudest achievement

  • Henry Winkler featured in the education documentary `We Are the People We've Been Waiting For'. He is playing Captain Hook in `Peter Pan' at the Liverpool Empire until January 3, 2010. He was talking to Meabh Ritchie.

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