It May Be a Case of the 'Word-Blind' Leading the 'Word-Blind,' but Charles Drake Unscrambles Dyslexia

updated 03/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Dr. Charles Drake, the founder of the country's largest educational program for dyslexics, has a story to tell. With his booming voice he's quite a storyteller.

Some 50 years ago, as part of a classroom assignment in the small town of Braselton, Ga., a boy wrote about his aspirations for the future. The boy said that he hoped to become a writer, a statement that provoked a cruel reaction from his teacher. The teacher tried—and failed—to stifle a laugh. He knew about the student's "difficulty."

The boy was a very bad speller, his handwriting was practically illegible, and he habitually confused "b" with "d" and "p" with "q." The teacher didn't say so, but his opinion was that this student would never become a writer.

It wasn't until 20 years later—by which time the boy had become an ordained minister, joined a secondary school faculty and been awarded a Fulbright scholarship—that he learned about dyslexia, a specific learning disability that has nothing to do with intelligence. Charles Drake, the boy who had been humiliated in that Georgia classroom, discovered that he was not stupid. He was disabled.

"It changed my life," Drake says now. Freed of the frustrating stigma of being considered intellectually dim, Drake went on to earn a doctorate in education from Harvard. To help students avoid the same derision he had been subjected to as a child, Drake established what became known as the Landmark Foundation.

The foundation consists of the flagship school and a research and diagnostic center in Massachusetts, a day school in California and a college in Vermont. There is also a fleet of more than a dozen sailing vessels that are used for instructional programs. The budget runs to $12 million annually.

Drake oversees his learning empire from an untidy office in Prides Crossing, Mass., where he is the working headmaster of the Landmark School. There is a homey feel to the operation. Drake's pet German shepherd, Ruth, has the run of the office. His wife, Marjorie, does diagnostic testing for admissions.

"Virtually all the students have low self-esteem when they get here," Drake says of the 400-plus kids who pay a steep $21,800 annual tuition and board to attend the secondary school. "You can quickly see the change when they have the confidence that they can learn. It's like a pall lifting."

Drake has helped devise a curriculum with heavy emphasis on the bolstering of confidence. The concept throughout has been to take severely dyslexic students and work on an intense, individual basis. The teacher-student ratio at Landmark is three-to-one. "Every class—be it math, science or whatever—is a language class," says Drake.

Principally a language disorder, dyslexia can be detected among children who begin to speak late or among those who cannot read aloud or who cannot read to themselves or who have trouble spelling. Transposing words or letters, cramped handwriting and problems with math can also be signs of dyslexia. The range of symptoms includes an inability to shuffle cards or a clumsiness in dancing. "The British call it 'non-specific awkwardness,' " says Drake.

It has been only about 40 years since dyslexia—once known as "word-blindness"—was isolated by educators to include a range of behavior that is essentially enigmatic. No one knows all the causes of dyslexia, but there are some clear indications that it is genetic. "You don't ever 'cure' dyslexia," says Drake, whose mother was dyslexic. "Dyslexics develop their own strategies for getting along in society. If you removed all of them from the scientific and business communities, there would be an incredible problem. They are among the most realistic people you'll find." Well-known dyslexics include Thomas Edison, Hans Christian Andersen, George Patton, Nelson Rockefeller, Bruce Jenner and Tom Cruise. (Seventy-five to 80 percent of all dyslexics are male.) Says Drake, "Those dyslexics who survive their early failures in school become indomitable."

That kind of determination has characterized Drake's life. After his graduation from high school, he earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia. Then, taking time out to marry Marjorie Rush in 1943 (they have three children, two of whom are dyslexics), he enrolled in New York's Union Theological Seminary and became a Congregationalist minister. But teaching had an allure that Drake couldn't resist (he had taught all through his college years), and he accepted a job as an instructor in Old and New Testament and English literature at Berea College in Kentucky. While there he won a Fulbright and went to Denmark to study one of its high school systems. While there, he met a widely known expert on word-blindness named Edith Norrie. It was a revelation for Drake. "In 30 minutes I knew I had many kids in my classes at home who had those symptoms," recalls Drake. "And I knew that I had dyslexia."

In 1971 Drake borrowed $450,000 and established the first Landmark School in a former mansion in Prides Crossing. A strict disciplinarian, Drake enforces a rigorous dress code—no jeans in the dining room or classroom. "When a kid gets into denim," asserts Drake, "he gets depressed."

Some students balk at the discipline, but the results are dramatic. "I thought I was plain-out stupid," says 18-year-old Julie Liversidge of Newburyport, Mass., speaking of her public school days. "I was very quiet. I felt very negative about myself." Two years ago, she transferred to Landmark and is now a senior. "I've never felt so good. I don't ever want to leave Landmark. A lot of kids are embarrassed to say they go here. I'm not. I feel I'm different and I'm proud of it."

Now that he is 65 Drake is hoping to ease up on the day-to-day operation of the school and do more teaching and basic research. He also wants to spend more time doing something that once produced a snicker from a teacher in rural Georgia—writing.

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