Happy Days and After...

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Henry Winkler lived in a time when a child was thought to be dumb or lazy (when it comes to education) when, in actuality, he had a real problem, one that he couldn’t help or overcome without help. However, we now live in a time where, when a child is thought lazy and does not want to work on schoolwork, rather than thinking, this child just doesn’t want to do his work, it is all attributed to a learning disorder. From the Henry Winkler children of the world, people have learned that children can and do have real problems that impede their education- no matter how hard they try. But, rather than think a child now just wouldn’t try hard, we attribute it to a string of disorders.

There is a fine line when it comes to how far we want to go when it comes to pushing a child. Because a little bit of pushing is healthy- look at Winkler himself and what he was able to accomplish. Being dyslexic he was still able to attain his dream of acting. Whether that would have come had his life not gone exactly the way it did- one will never know. But, had one thing gone easily in the “butterfly effect” of one’s life- Winkler could have found himself having to fall back on the minor he graduated from college with, Psychology.

Growing up with a father who made people stand when he came into a room could not have been easy. For whatever heights the man attained, it sounds like he wanted everyone to treat him like he was a President. And to grow up with a mother who was never given the decision, rather or not she wanted to leave the rest of her family in Nazi Germany (where they all died), must have been hard. For a woman to have the relief that it was not her there, who would die like the rest of all her loved ones, but that she got out and no one else did- why was she the one to survive, she was left to ponder over for the rest of her, and Henry Winkler’s life as her son.

What an odd dichotomy it must have been to have parents who, while in Germany, looked down on the parts of the community that didn’t assimilate as they had- which meant other Jews, everyone who didn’t give themselves over to the German way of life completely. As Winkler said in his book, his parents had become Germans, they left their Jewishness behind- the Yiddish- spoke all German in the house. But did the Germans care that they had done this? Not at all. A Jew was still a Jew no matter what language they spoke or how much money they had, their position or status in Germany even- no Jew was allowed to escape their slaughter.

Henry Winkler, it seems, was like every other American boy and like Kevin, in the movie Home Alone, wished for his parents to forget about him and move away- just like a movie that would be made later on in Winkler’s life. While I am a woman and remember what life was like for me as a girl, that I always thought I’d run away, never that my parents would move away and leave me with all we had- I am left to wonder do all little boys think their parents will somehow leave and leave them with everything, while little girls are left to dream about the day they can run away from everything they have?

Growing up when the TV dinners were only two kinds and televisions only had a few programs Winkler reminds us of a time that was different from the world we see now. When parents were immigrants, rather than born in America. Where many of the ideals you were taught came from another country, one that a child hadn’t seen or lived in themself. When children were taught to “strive to fit in” although they had been born in America it was their parents, not themselves, who needed to fit in. And when it seems, a child was not an extension of a parent but a direct reflection of the parents (at least, it seems, is the way parents acted).

Because Winkler’s bad grades earned him great disdain from the adults in his life- as if they had failed, rather than him. He was called “Dummer Hund” meaning dumb dog by them. But to then find, at the age of thirty-four that one has severe dyslexia as Winkler does- how do you forgive the parents who abused you for not doing well in school when there was an actual problem with how your body and brain works- in your entire learning process, that it is different and harder than others? No matter what he did Winkler would, in no way on his own, figure out the puzzle to make his mind function the way it should, sad and, I’m sure, left residual feelings for the adults in his life that made his problem even harder by never looking for one, equating a real issue he had with being dumb- and telling him he was.

No matter what, it seems, Winkler was a determined kid. He even went so far as to approach the cool kids after every summer and tell them, “I’ve changed”, “I’m better.” While they must have had nicer cool kids back in his day (than mine), for I would have been laughed at so hard had I approached the cool kids and said the same, never to do that again, Winkler, despite his problems at home and in school, pressed to find something he was good at.

It was not sports- not just the fact that he couldn’t go without breakfast before swim practice (to keep himself from throwing up in the pool, which he did) and the lack of foot-eye coordination to play soccer- there would only be one thing Winkler found he was good at- participating in school plays. Sadly, it seems, grades kept him out of all but two (of the plays). But, Winkler tried so hard, battling dyslexia, to do something he loved-

That we have all seen Winkler as a star, playing the iconic character, “the Fonz” is no surprise. But the memories he shares of his own schooling seem more like nightmares, rather than good times- though Winkler does admit his teachers seemed to care and want him to do good. Sadly, most of society hadn’t opened their minds to problems like dyslexia, it wasn’t widespread or a known fact yet, or known at all…..Winkler is one of those who blazed the way for issues like this in children to be brought into mainstream knowledge so that no other children live a life like he did- known as a dumb dog to his parents for a problem he could have never solved on his own, the very problem impeding its solution.

Winkler talks of coming up, head to head with some of the greats- Sylvester Stallone (before Rocky) and Richard Gere, who he actually replaced in a film. Starting with commercials which were seen as a betrayal of his Yale education, Winkler got himself out there into the heads and hearts of those that would help him become a star. And, despite the “shame” in commercial acting, money is money and though fellow students seemed dismayed when he shared this, their second question was always something along the lines of “How do I do it too?”

And though Winkler had success in New York, began to have small parts in films when it was suggested that if he wanted to be “known to the world” to “go to California” that is where he went- where it all began for Henry Winkler, who would later be cast in the iconic role he is most remembered for- as ‘the Fonz” in the sitcom Happy Days. Detailing the highs and lows, Being Henry talks about what life was like as one of the most known actors in the world on television and then what life was like after the party ended.

Happy Reading!