A dozen people mill about the steps of the squat apartment building, dotting its aging facade of washed out bricks. Several of the women sip Pabst. A group of men whistle, then catcall to a stranger locking a car door. "Ain't nobody goin' to steal your 'chine [car]," one shouts indignantly.

This scene a couple of miles east of downtown Washington provides an unlikely backdrop for the quiet middle-class neighborhood that produced the first black woman ever to become a Rhodes Scholar. But diagonally across the street in the 1200 block of Evarts St. NE., Karen Stevenson, who has won one of the most prestigious honors open to young scholars in the English-speaking world, opens the door.

When a young woman who grew up just across the street from this stereotypical inner-city environment wins the creme de la creme of academic honors and she is partly a product of the much censured District of Columbia public school system, the irresistible question is how she accomplished it.

Karen Stevenson moves with an athlete's grace to lead a visitor from the foyer into a book-cluttered dining room. Stacks of computer printouts of the city's registered voters line the edges of the walls. Karen's mother, Dr. Clara Stevenson, a child psychologist who is running Edward Kinslow's school board re-election campgian, pounds a portable typewriter at the kitchen counter.

"Excuse the clutter," she says matter-of-factly.

"Oh, it's always like this," Karen says, an impish grin spreading across a Valentine face.

The black network in town buzzed incessantly last May when Stevenson became one of 32 American Rhodes scholars selected from 1,250 applicants and announced she would study French and Russian during her two years at Oxford. "Who is this girl?" one prominent Washingtonian asked. To be sure, the first black Rhodes scholar had been selected more than 70 years ago -- in 1907, and eight others have been named in succeeding years. Yet education still is an area where the majority of blacks don't get the opportunity to achieve equally.

There was no magic moment when Karen Stevenson realized that she was special, and although she is a supremely confident scholar-athlete, she, in fact, expresses mild chagrin about some of the attention she's getting. "Getting the Rhodes doesn't say you're better than other people. It's partly a matter of motivation -- you have to apply, you know. Some people have said it's a great time to be a black female. I think it's a great time to be bright and competent. And a hell of a lot of black people are smarter than I am."

The key to Karen Stevenson's achievements is her mother, a divorcee who moved here with her two daughters from Texas in the early 1960s. "I lived in a house where everything you wanted to do was acceptable," Karen begins. "There was not so much a particular motivation as it was simply a sense that there is nothing that is locked off to you. We grew up with a sense of no limitations," she says.

Karen and her sister Keely (now a senior at the University of Florida at Gainesville) walked the few blocks to Slowe Elementary School and played with the neighborhood children. But if Clara Stevenson set rules for her girls -- they must play on their side of the street, they could not watch television from Monday through Thursday -- she also challenged their hearts and minds. "We had library cards in second grade," says Karen. "My mother was all the role model I had, her and her friends. I grew up surrounded by strong professional women."

Clara Stevenson carefully watched the schools and constantly checked her girls' homework. Once when Karen was in the fifth grade, Mrs. Stevenson discovered there were fourth graders in the class to whom Karen was in effect serving as a tutor. She did not like that and swiftly saw that the child was placed with only fifth graders. "I told Karen she had to lead from the front, not from behind."

The girls lived with relatives in Texas in the late sixties when Clara Stevenson returned to college to earn a doctorate. Karen came back to Washington and enrolled in Taft Junior High School for eighth grade.

Some opportunities Texas offered were closed to her at Taft, such as a good school orchestra where she pursued an interest in the violin. Karen began to acutely feel the lack of challenge. Then she was told that she could not take a class in drafting because she was a girl.

"Bullsh-- !" cried Clara Stevenson, who earned her living as a clinical psychologist for the public schools. "That's it for the public schools."

She explained later, "Public education is designed to being everybody to an average level of competence. If you have a child who shows potential that the system is not going to nurture, the parent has the clear responsibility to do for that child." The turning point came when Karen transferred to Taft, a 500-pupil preparatory school in Watertown, Conn., in 1971, the first year the school admitted girls. Karen fit in easily despite the wide disparity in her family's income and that of most of the wealthy preparatory school students. Academically, she was well prepared. "I was so excited about being in an environment that is academically challenging."

For her part, Clara Stevenson made it clear to her 14-year-old daughter that the minute she was unhappy, she could return home.

The experience of blacks at the nation's preparatory schools has been at best an uneven course. Prior to the sixties, their numbers were sparse and their success or failure was largely an individual matter. Like Karen, these men and women were brought up with the dicta of "maximum personal fulfillment" that often spawned winners and high achievers, but not every middle-class black who attended exclusive preparatory schools returned to their parents' home with boundless optimism. Some met racism head on, and that reality so darkened their sunniness that more than one black "preppie" ended up steering taxicabs around the streets of cities like Washington, devastated by the credibility gap between life as they were told that it could be and as they found it.

Later in the seventies as the number of blacks at preparatory schools increased, many became internally stratified on the basis of income, and their clashes and confusion were met by prep school administrations that were at time baffled and indifferent.

"New England prep schools can be tricky. I was lucky and this was a good one in terms of my being able to fit in and be comfortable. I wasn't uncomfortable because a lot of my mother's friends were black, white, everything. A lot of time, I was totally unaware of being a human being and dealing with people that way. A lot of parents talk one thing and do something else. My mother talked and did the same thing," she emphasizes as she thoughtfully wrinkles her forehead.

Karen went from class sizes of 40 at Taft Junior High to those of eight at prep school. She went from English, American History, Basic Science and Physical Education to Latin, French, Biology, English and Geometry at prep school. "I organized classes so there would be only two people -- me and one other person to get what I wanted to get out of them.

"I discovered that the system is maneuverable. If you know what you want to learn, it's out there. I don't care where you go to school. You have to be responsible for your own education. Decide what you want to do and be aggressive. It gets back to the individual. I've always been willing to try."

If Karen learned to read "because she lived in a house with books," she learned to write at prep school. She won a Morehead scholarship to the University of North Carolina the first year the scholarship was open to women. It is awarded to high school students on the basis of character, scholastic ability and "physical vigor" in sports or in other activities.

"We had a monumental fight over Chapel Hill," says her mother. "Karen wanted to go to Stanford, Princeton or Harvard, but the scholarship came from North Carolina."

There she employed her formula of aggressively educating herself to make Phi Beta Kappa. She served as captain of the women's varsity track and field team, and holds the university record in the women's 400-meter dash and the 60- and 100-meter hurdles. She became the first junior woman to win the Jim Tatum Memorial Award she won it again in her senior year, and also received the Irene F. Lee Award which is given to the outstanding senior woman.

"I like to do what I do well. I am constantly racing against myself, not sonal ideal and standards. Dealing with yourself, you can't hide any of the dirty spots."

Karen has always gone against the grain, and seemed either to have subdued or passed over the traumas. "I'm an eccentric." When she decided to go to Japan after her freshman year, some blacks at North Carolina chided her, "What do you want to go there for." Her response was an offhand, "It's not your business, ace. As long as my family approves, I don't care what anybody else thinks." She has subsequently traveled in Eastern Europe," a great character builder," she says wryly.

Dr. Clara Stevenson comes from the kitchen as Karen, worn out from questions, escapes upstairs.

"I have two truisms," she begins.

"You provide a wholesome home environment . . . with the normal limits for responsibility and behavior. Second, you never tell a child what he can't do -- if you feel he has reason to believe he can do it and the child is willing to accept the consequences, let him try. And always be there when he stubs that toe.

"I think parenting is a stewardship. You're given an opportunity to interpret the environment for your children. It's been a growth process for me. Her world is so much different from mine. But I know you cannot rear a child unless you have your own direction."

"I've tried to teach both my girls that things are the least important. You don't have to have a pretty house. I've taught them you don't expect anyone to give you anything, that they'll get what they earn. And I've taught them to think positively because that will get you a lot more than money.

"So I don't see what Karen's done as so unusual. I don't see it unusual for anyone who can get the right kind of education. I don't think she could have done it going to the public schools."

Clara Stevenson leads a visitor out of the door; darkness has fallen and the apartment building steps now are vacant. Clara Stevenson looks as it as if measuring the distance between the two dwellings. It is not long before she turns and goes back inside.