The valedictorian of Anacostia High School is 17, shy, serious and soft-spoken, poised on the brink of her life, neither amazed nor frightened by it.

In this odd moment, graduation, childhood is already receding; adulthood is still a long way off and time seems suspended between nostalgia and anticipation. Only the present is breathlessly certain.

Desiree Dodd knows the outlines of her future, or at least the way she would like to see it. She will probably go to Howard University in the fall, in the hopes of someday becoming a fashion designer. She will work at McDonald's in the summer as she has all year after school to help pay her way. So far, she has $400 saved.

Last night, the graduating seniors of the Anacostia High School Class of '82 marched down the aisles of Howard University's Cramton Auditorium to a rendition of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's "War March of the Priests." A thousand Kodak Instamatics bloomed as the 236 seniors took their places, the young men in blue caps and gowns, the young women in red, the five honors students in white. It was a night for proud smiles and brave words, and while it lingered, it seemed that the smiles would last forever and the words would never be ignored.

"You will find your own place in the arena of life," Patricia Roberts Harris told them. "The future is found not in a sense of what we have been, but in what we yearn to be . . . I know that you will be among those who will contribute mightily to the solution of problems that you will convert to opportunities."

They listened and cheered and cheered still more when senior Kevin Lassiter said at the end of Harris' speech, "We stand in the limelight of victory and we know that if we become as one, then no one can stop us!"

For Desiree Dodd, things look very different now from the way they did a few months ago.

A few months ago, Desiree had decided not to go to college; she thought she would work for a year or so and then make up her mind. There were so many reasons. "School was expensive," she explained a few days before graduation. She hesitated for a moment, then began again. There was something else. Her mother is dying, she said, in a soft, hushed voice. Of lung cancer. She looked away for a moment, staring hard at the laughing students in the distance, the sun on the parked cars.

"This is a bright young lady and when I found out she hadn't applied to any colleges, I was so upset," said Olivia Calhoun, an assistant principal at Anacostia. She is a large, generous-looking woman with an air of maternal authority so imposing that it is hard to imagine seriously opposing anything she might suggest. "I said to her, 'Girl, with that average, you'd better go to school.' " Besides, she said, "there are so many things you can run into out in the world and without a mother to turn to, it isn't easy. She doesn't need to be out there so soon."

Calhoun called Desiree's father, sent her home with application forms for financial aid and scholarships, called someone who knew someone at Howard who could help with her admissions despite the eleventh-hour nature of the request, and arranged for her to take the College Boards later this month.

Carl Dodd complained good-naturedly that the forms were more complicated than anything he had to fill out while he worked for the government, which he did for 33 years, as a cryptologist with the National Security Agency. He retired nearly two years ago, a GS-12. "I didn't achieve the heights I could have," he said, and talked of the racism that had always been a fact of his life. "Many times I bowed, but whatever I gained, I earned. I made a decent life for my family."

He sat at the kitchen table watching a small television set in the apartment where Desiree has lived all her life. Fifteen years ago, he said, it used to be a good place to live, but now the yard is ragged, the streets unsafe, the hallways dark and dank. He lives there with his wife and Desiree, their youngest child, and with his son Carl Jr., a meat cutter in Georgetown, and Toi, his daughter, recently RIFed, and her 10-month-old son. Desiree's other sisters, Diane and Tondalayo, live nearby and visit frequently, and the small apartment was filled, as it often is, with his children and his children's children. Down the hallway, in a darkened room, his wife, Doris, sat on the edge of the bed, smoking a cigarette, pain and resignation swamping her face.

Yes, he is proud of his daughter, he said, proud that she is going to college, proud of her goals. "It's going to be tough," he said, as Desiree pulled out some of the fashion designs she has sketched. "It will mean lots of sacrifices, being in the right place at the right time. You've got to get yourself known, that's what you have to do." He continued, talking with quiet determination, almost to himself, repeating the lessons he has learned over the years. "I had it rough sometimes, I was hungry sometimes, but I always taught my children not to believe in that bad word, 'can't.' All my kids have talent," he said fiercely.

Still, Carl Dodd shook his gray head at the ways in which the world has changed. "All these computers doing everything," he said. "Who does it hurt--it hurts the poor people, black and white, that's who. Everything that the little man did years ago is out of his grasp now, he can't do it anymore. It's bad for everybody." He looked over at his daughter, head bent over the pastel drawings of willowy models dressed in her fragile dreams, and was quiet.

"I think he shouldn't talk that way," Desiree will say of her father's credo. "I think that anything that's good, if you want it you have to work for it. It's not going to come to you, but if you want it bad enough you can get it."

"It is time for moving on," Desiree's speech began. "Therefore this commencement exercise is not an ending, it symbolizes a beginning . . . We will move on, regardless of the many obstacles which we may encounter in achieving our goals. In moving on, we must hitch our wagon to a star in our quest for higher achievement."

A few days before, Desiree had talked about what it was like as she was growing up: "I remember some days, when I wouldn't want to go to school, and my father would get really mad, he'd say, 'Don't run on the streets, don't be like other people.' " And then there was her mother, always watchful, on guard against the dangers that can threaten a young girl growing up in a world where a certain kind of innocence is both foreign and foolish. "She'd look at the girls in school who already had kids and she'd shake her head and say, 'Babies having babies.' "

". . . I would especially like to acknowledge the support and encouragement that my parents, Carl and Doris Dodd, have given me throughout all my school years. They are the ones who instilled me with the ideas to be self-reliant, to recognize the need for education, and to strive diligently to be the best person I can possibly be."

That was when her voice cracked and the tears stopped her for a moment. Her father stared straight ahead and said, "I thought she might cry. She's thinking of her." But Desiree Dodd made it through, and at the end the audience helped her with a long round of applause.

Suddenly, it was time for the benediction and the recessional. All along the way, she had worked hard, she had done what was expected, and now it was over. Today it will be back to working at McDonald's and hoping for the scholarships, until the hot summer nights disappear into the cool dreams of autumn.

"I know what I want," she says. I just want my family to be comfortable, to be well off. I know nobody's going to give me anything. I have to go out and get it."