"I'm going to die. I'm going to die," shouted the second-grader as he ran to principal Dorothy Carpenter. "I ate some of that snow and it might be radioactive. Help me! Help me!"

"You're not going to die, Robert. Now sit down and talk to me for a minute," Carpenter recalls saying to the youngster, as she prepared to deal with another minicrisis at Fort Foote Elementary, her domain since it was opened in 1960.

She remembers Robert's fears last winter as among the more dramatic problems she has coped with at the southern Prince George's school, where she has dealt daily with childhood woes that range from lost lunch money to bad report cards.

During her two decades at Fort Foote, Carpenter has been principal to several thousand students, held hundreds of parent conferences and driven untold numbers of children home after they missed the school bus.

"Over the years she's given an awful lot to children," said Milton Steinbaum, Oxon Hill Junior High principal and a member of the Maryland Association of Elementary School Administrators committee that decided to award the organization's Professional Award to Carpenter this year. The county school system also has named Carpenter one of the 16 top educators in Prince George's. The awards will be presented to her this month.

"I feel like I'm floating on cloud nine," said Carpenter of the honors.

For both parents and children, Carpenter's presence is one of the few threads connecting Fort Foote's past with its present. All else has changed.

The school had 700 students during much of the 1970s but now has slightly fewer than 400.

As recently as a decade ago, the number of black children at the school could be counted on two hands. Now, 60 percent of the students are black.

The names and the faces of pupils and teachers who now make up the Fort Foote Elementary School have changed. The modest brick school building on Oxon Hill Road has doubled in size.

Through it all, Carpenter has been one of the few constants. But now this too will change, for she plans to retire at the end of this school year.

Carpenter has worn many hats over the years.

"Sometimes, I feel like a mother, policeman, teacher and nurse," says Carpenter, 50.

On nearly any morning, she can be seen picking up litter from the school grounds just before the buses arrive with the grade-schoolers. Later in the day, she often walks the hallways and makes herself available as problem-solver.

On a recent afternoon, she stopped and talked to two third-graders who on the previous day had gotten into a fight.

"Now Ronte, we had a talk yesterday; you aren't going to fight anymore, are you?" The little boy shook his head and smiled. Carpenter winked.

Another student stopped to show her a picture he had drawn.

"Now, Kenny, I always like to see people when they have done something nice. Your drawing is so nice because you gave everyone five fingers," said Carpenter. "The writing is good too.Give me a hug."

Carpenter says she makes an effort every year to get to know the first names of as many of the students as possible. She usually gets to know all of them because she often substitutes for her teachers.

"I am basically a teacher, so when I get a chance to substitute, that makes my day," says Carpenter. "I find it really refreshing. It gives me a better sense of what a teacher has to deal with in the classroom."

Carpenter says that as far back as she can remember, she has wanted to be a teacher.

"I played teacher all the time when I was in elementary school," she remembers. "I really enjoy working with children. You get up there in front of the classroom and start talking, and you can just see their eyes light up and the wheels rolling."

She first came to Prince George's County in 1952 with her husband. She had worked briefly in the Charles County schools after graduating from Towson State Teachers College in Towson, Baltimore County, and started in Prince George's as a teacher at Oxon Hill Elementary.

Carpenter impressed school administrators and was asked to serve as the first principal of the newly opened Carmody Hills Elementary School in 1958.

Two years later, she came to Fort Foote Elementary. Carpenter has seen many changes since the school opened.

"You have children coming to school with a lot more knowledge now than before," she said. "I think it has a lot to do with television.

"On the other hand, you have more children coming to school with keys around their necks -- little children. They go home and there's no one there. That worries me."

"She has an outstanding record as an educator," said Oxon Hill principal Steinbaum. "I've left school late many a night myself, but I've seen her car on that school parking lot too many times to count."

According to Steinbaum, Carpenter was one of the first principals in the state to experiment with two programs for slow learners and high achievers -- the Talented and Gifted and the Special Language Reading Development programs.

School board member Angelo Castelli, whose four children either attended or are attending Fort Foote, commended Carpenter in a letter to the awards committee of the state administrator's association.

"She has consistently demonstrated a deep concern for the well-being of all her students and has a strong desire to promote and achieve excellence in education," Castelli noted. "She knows each and every child in her school and closely monitors their academic achievements. This is truly a remarkable woman."

Carpenter says that after retiring, she intends to learn to play the piano and to sharpen her golf game. Her husband, a supervisor in the research computation center at the Naval Research Laboratory, has encouraged her to pursue both projects.

"I know I'll miss the school," she added. "That's why I'll have to come back and do volunteer work sometimes. It's awfully hard to put something that has been a vital part of your life on the shelf for good. I'll come back if only for a short while."