It was a night for dark-horse winners: Movie stars Cher and Tom Cruise, artist Robert Rauschenberg, decathlon champion Bruce Jenner and business executives Richard Strauss and G. Chris Andersen all received awards last night from the Lab School of Washington for beating the odds.

The odds were the learning disabilities collectively known as dyslexia, which all six recipients have had to contend with throughout their lives. Yesterday they met with Nancy Reagan at the White House, visited the school, and at an evening ceremony emceed by ABC's Steve Bell at the newly opened Hecht's Metro Center store, they were celebrated.

"It's exciting to get an award for being a dummy," said Cher, who received her award from House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O'Neill. She spoke of the visit she and her fellow awardees made to the school, where "I found children that were having the absolute best chance at an education and I really felt jealous and happy for them."

Indeed it had been a red-letter day for the students -- it's not every day Tom Cruise and Cher show up at your school, after all. But there he was and there she was, he in 1920s-chic gangster suit, hair glooped in grease, and she draped in black and gray gabardine with a sculpted hair style best described as haute punk goddess. The visitors, followed by a slew of cameramen and reporters, had watched classes in progress and fielded student questions at a school press conference in the afternoon.

"Going to the school was pretty terrific," said Cruise, who donated his award back to the Lab School to encourage the students. He and the others had spoken earlier at the press conference of his learning problems: "I felt really embarrassed . . . My Zs were backwards. I didn't know the difference between a small b and a small d. I lived my whole life that way . . ."

"No one cared or knew very much about learning disabilities," said Rauschenberg, who said he didn't discover his dyslexia until he was 17. "You just feel terrible about it . . . like you're the dumbest person around."

"It was very, very difficult," said Jenner. "For some reason the reading process didn't work. It just didn't want to come off the paper like for everybody else . . . The biggest fear I ever had in my life was reading in front of the class . . ."

"I was told at one school I was word-blind," said Andersen, an investment banker whose son and uncle are also learning-disabled. "Another school, they blamed it on the previous school . . . It wasn't until a few years ago I discovered this was a problem that could have been diagnosed."

"I found out about her disability because of Chastity," said Cher. She had taken her daughter -- who also has learning problems -- to be tested and found she had the same symptoms: "a hard time reading and writing . . . My report card said 'She has the ability, but doesn't apply herself,' and I was busting my -- you know," she said to student laughter.

Lab School founder/director Sally Smith said netting the six was "just luck." The idea to invite them, she said, came after the Hecht Co. informed the Lab School (founded in 1967) it had been chosen as Hecht's official charity. Strauss, a real estate developer in Dallas, had already visited the school's Outstanding Achievers luncheons, and the other five were invited through third-party connections. Smith lured Cruise, she said, by writing to him.

"It's so hard to spot dyslexia ," which is frequently hereditary," said Smith. "Some have trouble reading, some writing, spelling or math; some organizing their bodies -- they bump into things. Some have trouble getting their words out . . . All worry about themselves and how they feel . . . It's truly the hidden handicap." Last night she received a standing ovation from the reception crowd for her work.

Jenner, who like all of the recipients spoke without notes, in his parting words told other dyslexics to persevere: "If he wins," said Jenner of the successful dyslexic, "he knows the thrill of great achievement. If he loses, he loses while daring greatly, so his place in life will never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."