THEY CLUSTERED around the heavy mahogany table, a rectangle of old and young faces, and talked about how it feels to be unable to read in a city that is a Mecca for the well-educated. They are among the 100,000 adults in Washington who lack a high school diploma, the kind of folks likely to become nameless statistics in the District's battle of the budget.

"Do you know what it's like when you don't know how to read?" Clarence Stevens, 24, asked, peering from behind the mound of books carefully stacked before him. "You feel like nobody," he said.

Cynthia Turner, 19, and her 18-year-old sister Janice threw Stevens an intense look, oblivious to the sunlight that dappled on the surface of the table. "Sometimes I felt bad because there were so many words," Cynthia recalled of her days in junior high school. Her voice trailed off.

Stevens understood. Now, it is different. "I feel good in just being somebody," he said. "When you're learing to read and write, it's just a better feeling than standing in the str eet not doing anything.

I had walked into the big Adult Education Center at 13th and K streets NW to see what Superintendent Vincent E. Reed's proposed reduction in adult education classes might mean to some of the 20,000 Washington residents to whom they offer hope.

There are 16 centers like this one in the District's public shool system. By closing five of the centers, Reed hopes to save $1 million and help the school system avoid a $27 million potential budget deficit.

By offering high school equivalency degrees, basic education and typing courses, English as a second language and counseling, the centers give their enrollees a chance to get off welfare, to increase their chances of finding a better job or getting a job in the first place.

For some men in Washington, a high school diploma or its equivalent is the difference between making $4 an hour as a custodian and earning three times as much as a union mechanic. It is the difference between crowding a family of five into a small apartment or moving into a row house that you can call your own.

These are folks who dropped out of high school when hit with financial hard times or faced with insensitive teachers. Now they are picking up books again, trying to be somebody; trying to be students again when most of their memories of being students before are bad ones, vividly recalled as if they had taken place only yesterday.

Tonya Porter pursed her lips when she thought of the experience three years ago that led her to eventually drop out of school in the 9th grade. "She called me a trifling heifer, getting' pregnant and all," Porter said of her old teacher.

Janice Turner, wiry and taut at 18, rocked in the heavy conference chair. "If you forgot your book, some teacher would crack on you, talk about your mother. They don't do that here," she said.

Gail Brown, a teacher/supervisor at the center, said it is a common complaint that in regular classes, many teachers were too buffeted by crowded classes and bureaucratic responsibilities to offer the time their students needed.

"They get individualized instruction here," Brown said.

I like it," Stevens spoke up. "You don't get hassled if you have to miss a day."

Stevens is a musician now, but his 10th grade education has not been enough.

"I could read music but I couldn't read words," he said. "Now it's half-and-half. Through the music, I get a better education.

If I do get my high school equivalency, there's a good chance of me going to college. I would like to be some kind of technician.

Washington is a city in financial crisis, and it seems to be getting worse. This city, like this nation, it entering a new era -- an era of less. The pie will not get larger in the foreseeable future.

The budget balanced job that is demanded requires vision and fair play. Citizens raise their eyebrows when they see the City Council trying to increase its staff at the same time that other city officials are proposing to cut back the number of corrections officers or close adult education centers.

This whole process produces anxiety, uncertainty and fear, because people do not know what is going to happen. They wonder if they are going to be the one out of a job.

"We're up in the air," administrator Connie Spinner said. "We don't know . . . and that's the worst kind of threat."

"People put their priorities in reference to children," said Spinner. "But I also know how parents perform has a lot to do with how children perform. The most impacting thing is the difference in self-esteem that happens to an adult who is now able to read, to perform."

These are the kind of people who lack political clout but not courage. And this adult education program is important to them because they see it as their only hope for a better life.

The group around the table kept talking about their new teacher. "She'll help you because she wants to see you get ahead," said Cynthia.

"The people here act like adults," her sister chimed in.

A 50-year-old retiree with dark-clipped bangs who had been silent said she's taking typing in order to change her occupation. "We need this school," she said. "We need alternatives for different kinds of needs."