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The World’s Greatest Underachiever

Actor and author Henry Winkler reminisces about how dyslexia impacted his school years in this article from Highlights for Children magazine. “Now I know,” he writes, “that even if a person learns differently, he or she can still be filled with greatness.”

All through grade school, I was tutored. If I got a D, I was in heaven. If a got a C-minus, it was like I had achieved greatness. A’s, B’s, even C’s were a kingdom that I never has a passport to. I studied my spelling words in my apartment in New York City. Somehow, during the time it took me to walk down the block from my apartment to my school, the words vanished.

My teacher, Miss Adolf, has given me a list of ten spelling words. One of the words was suburban. One of the words was neighbor. One was rhythm. My mother and I went over the list until I knew those words. I felt terrific. I thought, Wow! This time, I’m finally going to pass. Finally, no extra study time, no detention, no being grounded.

The next day, I went into the classroom , sat down, and took out a sheet of loose-leaf paper. I dated it and wrote my name in the left—hand corner. I wrote the numbers down the left side on each line — 1 through 10. Up until this point, I was getting 100 percent.

Then Miss Adolf gave us the words. They were not in the order that I had studied them, but that seemed OK. The first word was carpet. I was feeling pretty confident. Then came neighbor — I wrote down the letter n. Then rhythm — I knew there was an r. Suburban — I wrote down s-u-b. My heart sank. I had gone from 100 percent to maybe a D-minus. Where did my words go?

I knocked my head. Were the words holding on to the side of my brain? Could I knock them into my pencil?

Some people talk about information sliding off the blackboard of your brain. That was my life. I was called “stupid,” “lazy.” I was told that I was not “living up to my potential.” My self-image was down around my ankles.

The one thing I had going for me was my sense of humor. I was funny — the class clown. When the teacher read us a story, I would act it out. If someone was shooting ducks out of the air in the story, I’d get behind my chair and pretend that I was shooting ducks. That sure didn’t get me any A’s. It got me a trip downstairs to the principal’s office. And that wasn’t funny at all. No matter what I did, it didn’t seem to make a difference.

I wish I’d known then what I know now: I have dyslexia. My brain learns differently. I didn’t find that out until I was about thirty years old. My stepson, Jed, was in the third grade, and we had him tested for learning differences. As they explained dyslexia to him, I thought, Oh, my goodness! That’s me.

A learning disability can really affect the way you feel about yourself. Now I know that even if a person learns differently, he or she can still be filled with greatness. Every one of us has something special inside. It’s our job to figure out what that is. Dig deep, get it out, and give it to the world as a gift.

Meet Henry

Watch our video interview with Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver. Together they write the Hank Zipzer books, a series about a young boy with learning differences who is funny, resourceful, and smart. Watch the interview

About the author

Henry Winkler starred as Arthur Fonzarelli, “The Fonz,” in the popular television series Happy Days, and has appeared in a number of films, including Holes. Along with acting, producing, and directing, Winkler is currently co-writing a series of books, Hank Zipper, the Worlds’ Best Underachiever.


Used with permission of Highlights for Children, Limited reprints for educational purposes are allowed.

Winkler, H. (2005). The World’s Greatest Underachiever. Highlights for Children, 60(3), No. 641, 26-27.

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