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Learning Problem Plays Starring Role

Times Staff Writer

Cher talked about how difficult it is for her to dial a long-distance telephone call.

Tom Cruise, the 23-year-old actor who detonated millions of teen libidos with his performance in “Risky Business,” said he has a terrible time telling the difference between a “b” and a “d”.

And Bruce Jenner, the Olympic hero, told a room full of learning-disabled kids, “I’ve competed in the Olympics against the best from all over the world. But the biggest fear I ever had in my life was reading in front of class. I was terrified. My palms would sweat. I just couldn’t do it. I’d have to sit down.”

The kids smiled in recognition. They knew how that felt.

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Celebrities Tour School

The three celebrities, along with artist Robert Rauschenberg and businessmen G. Chris Andersen and Richard C. Strauss, came to Washington Wednesday to pick up Outstanding Learning Disabled Achiever Awards from the Lab School of Washington, a small but well-known school for children and adults with learning impairments.

The award winners visited Nancy Reagan at the White House, received their awards from (at the request of Democrat Cher) House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill (D-Mass.) at a dinner dance and they toured the Lab School.

All of the winners said they suffer from various forms of dyslexia, which transposes letters and numbers and makes simple reading and arithmetic an arduously slow-going process, often leading teachers to assess them as being dumb or lazy, or even retarded.

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Among them, only Jenner and Andersen had managed to persevere in school long enough to graduate from college. In grade school all of them were, as Dallas real estate developer Strauss put it, “right at the bottom of the class.”

The Lab School students, heavily armed with cameras, were especially thrilled with Cruise, who posed prom-style for picture after picture of himself with a string of swooning teen-age girls.

Questions From Youngsters

Although Cruise refused to answer any press questions (“I just finished a film and I’m really not up to it”), he gave in and joined the others in answering the kids’ questions.

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How do you feel about having a learning disability?

How did you feel about kids younger than you reading better than you?

“Kids still read better than I do,” Strauss, 40, said.

“Reading before the class was the most frustrating thing for me,” Cruise said. “I felt like I was dumb. I was real embarrassed.

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“My teachers were upset because I made my Zs backward and I didn’t know the difference between b’s and d’s,” said Cruise, whose difficulties were made worse because his family moved around a lot and he was ever the new kid in school, yearning for acceptance.

Cher, whose learning disabilities prompted her to drop out of high school at age 16 in El Centro, Calif., was thrilled with the school’s facilities. The halls and classrooms emphasized the visual, covered wall-to-wall with kids’ paintings, drawings and other colorful kid artwork.

“It’s so fabulous,” Cher said. “My whole house is like this.”

Cher told the kids, “On my report card it used to say, ‘She has ability but doesn’t apply herself.’ But I was busting my . . . you know.” The kids laughed. “I worked really hard.”

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Cher, 39, did not realize the nature of her problem, she said, until she had her daughter, Chastity, tested, and it was determined that Chastity, now 16, had dyslexia. Cher realized that what the experts were talking about, she had, too.

“I’m a terrible reader. It took me a long time to be able to write checks. I have a hard time dialing phones,” Cher said. “For me, it’s annoying, but in another kind of work, it would be devastating. If I read a (movie) script, I read it very slowly and memorize it the first time I read it.” Cruise said the same thing about scripts.

Black, Spiked Wig

Cher’s appearance--jet black spiked wig and dark, draped clothes--was typically Cher-chic, which is to say Halloweenesque. Catching his first glimpse of Cher walking into the classroom, one little Boy Scout gasped in fright. But Cher seemed to take it in good humor.

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Jenner, 36, the hero of the 1976 Olympics, flunked second grade and has to memorize the sports commentary he gives on television now because he has trouble reading the Teleprompter.

“I get everything in advance and memorize it,” Jenner said. “I don’t do anything cold.” He told the kids how excelling at sports was the only thing that enabled him to “hold my head up high,” and that a negative self-image is a critical problem.

Rauschenberg, whose artwork is on display in the National Gallery, told the kids, “You feel like you’re the dumbest person around.”

Rauschenberg spent less than a year at the University of Texas before he was “expelled for refusing to dissect a live frog,” he said. It was no great tragedy as he was struggling through his pharmacy studies “in the lower third of my class.”

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“Isn’t it a good thing I’m not filling your prescriptions?”

Like all the others, the 60-year-old Rauschenberg did not know he had a learning disability until he was an adult. The whole area of dyslexia has only begun to be widely recognized as a problem different from mental retardation, low intelligence or laziness.

“For years I thought I was just restless, just slow,” Rauschenberg said. “The biggest help for disabled kids is to convince them it’s not their fault.”

Rauschenberg feels strongly about the need to educate the public about the problem and found it “shocking,” he said, that the White House barred the press from their brief visit with Mrs. Reagan.

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“The only reason we’re down here is to create some attention,” Rauschenberg said.

Elaine Crispen, Mrs. Reagan’s press secretary, said the barring of the press was a result of “poor planning” by the the White House.

Rauschenberg was also dismayed that Mrs. Reagan “just said, ‘Hello, nice to meet you.’ I’m surprised she didn’t make some kind of statement about what this is all about.

“Everybody in the group seriously believes our being here makes some difference in attracting national attention to a problem that can go undetected but can wreck your life.”

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Strauss, who has developed more than $1 billion worth of commercial and residential real estate properties, “failed a number of classes every year,” he said. “I thought I was pretty dumb.

Getting Attention

“It causes a lot of people to do what I did--get attention in other ways by being a disciplinary problem.”

He was diagnosed as having dyslexia in high school and eventually dropped out of college after a year and a half to pursue his real estate career, “avoiding reading and writing, which I’m not good at.”

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Andersen, a managing director in Drexel Burnham Lambert’s corporate finance department, also had difficulty reading but stuck with it long enough to attain a master’s degree in finance, graduating near the top of his class.

“I still can’t spell and I’m a very poor writer,” Andersen, 47, said. “I’ve never learned to tell my right hand from my left without thinking about it.”

Andersen is able to compete in his business, he said, which requires a lot of reading.

“It’s just a slow digestive process,” Andersen said. “You’d be surprised how much associates and analysts can read for you.”

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All of the award winners were full of praise for the Lab School, telling the kids they wished there had been one for them. As a measure, perhaps, of how societal needs have changed, the 18-year-old school was once a home for unwed mothers.


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