When you are 9 years old and your right arm and leg do not function well, winning a trophy in a swimming class in an extraordinary achievemennt.

So, James Priest's small chest was puffed to its fullest with pride - a pride mirrored in his mother's face - as he scrambled up the poolside bleaches to hand her his silver statuete.

IT was the best moment of the day at the first annual water show put on by James' special education class, said the Congress Heights youth after last week's event in Woodson High School.

James, whose right side was paralyzed following a car accident when he was 2 years old, is one of about 20 youngsters with physical and learning disabilities who are augmenting their classroom lessons in the D.C. public school system's aquatic intervention project.

Children with cerebral palsy, respiratory ailments, sickle cell anemia and various other disabling conditions come from 10 Southeast schools to calss at Washington Highland Community School once a week.

The water show, with choreographed swimming, pool side skits, the crowning of a class queen and certificates or trophies for all, was intended to put a "focus on their abilities, rather than their disabiliities," class instructor Jerome Brocks said.

LaJuan Sykes, 16, a Ballou High School sophomore, wore a stunned, disbelieving look when she was pronounced queen of the show. But with a flowing red robe draped over her bathing suit, and a rhinestone crown perched in her Afro, she mounted her wood throne, crossed her legs and watched regally over the rest of the show.

LaJuan's skin is ridged with scars left by burns over 90 per cent of her body. Her burns were sustained in a house fire when she was 8. Despite repeated surgery, she still has trouble flexing her hands, according to her fathe, Russell Sykes.

The swimming class has helped expand LaJuan's interests, providing the shy, introverted "A" student with the opportunity for more social activities, Sykes said.

"She has gone through a lot of changes, but she is not really handicapped. She can do almost anything any other kid can do," Sykes said. "She seems more balanced now (since entering the swimming class) and she has a beautiful penmanship and is learning sewing."

LaJuan said she feels that she is ahead of some of her peers, who still just "play in the water" as she did before entering the program last year. "I went to enjoy swimming, but now I'm helping the other kids," she said.

Instructor Brocks said his students "have been branded. It's hard for some of them to absorb knowledge, but I think we have proved today that they can learn if giben the opportunity and an atmosphere that is exciting."

Excitement was the order of the day with squeals and cheers comming from the dozens of children in the audience.

An opening skit, with "Blue Beard's" pirates battling in canoes on the 75-foot pool with the queen's men for the palace treasure had all the intensity of high melodrama.

Brocks said the show was prepared in spite of numerous setbacks, including the hospitalization of one class member, and a non-functioning pool at Washington Highland School, where the events were originally scheduled.

The class had expanded to include families of students in swimming lessons at the YWCA on Sundays, a practice that helps to reduce some of the tensions that sometimes trouble homes with disabled children, he said.

"Last year we had students who could not write their names," Brocks said. But with the use of flash cards, maps and other instruments of "water learning," most students have improved markedly, he said.

Jean Younger recalled "running back and forth to the doctor every few weeks," with her son, Dwayne, an asthmatic, before he enrolled in the class.

"He hasn't been ill at all this year," Younger said, as her son's name was called as the "outstanding swimmer" of the class.

"And he didn't even know how to swim before he got in this class," she said.

Brocks said the importance of working in the pool to teach handicapped students is that "the water becomes the medium" of learning and has "a very soothing effect on the hyperactive child."

"It's a physical as well as a psychological aid," Sykes said of the swimming lessons. "They know they can do something. They can get involved. These children can't run track or play basketball."

Brocks said he plans to make the aquatics show a regular event in the city's school system.