Imagine for a moment that you just graduated from a public high school in D.C. As far back as you can remember, no one has lavished much praise on the education you've received.

Test scores have taken a beating; discipline's been spotty; books and materials limited, and the school system has been waging a tenuous battle to hold on to its self-esteem.

So, what now? More than 5,000 District young people who graduated from high schools around town in the past couple of weeks are asking themselves that question. We know, without hearing their answers, that many of them mean to be somebody.

Two out of three graduates, D.C. school officials tell us, are college bound. Which probably means for many of them predominantly black schools and, even then, remedial courses to catch up. In too many cases, they've got to master reading, writing and mathematics before their college educations can begin.

But struggle is everyday fare for many of these kids. As often as not, it's a way of life. Consider Shirell Copeland, for example. As she executed the hand shaking, diploma taking ritual in the leaded glass glow of Washington Cathedral last Friday, she wasn't kiding herself about the future. A foster child since she was 7, Shirell had been shunted from home to home and from school to school. She has four high schools under her cap before she earned her diploma from Anacostia High.

Shirell is off to Wilberforce University, a largely black school in rural Ohio, to study pre-law on a grant. One day, she says, she'll bring her education back to Washington and practice law. More importantly, she wants to reunite the eight scattered kids in her family. "I know if I make it," she says, "my family will make it."

Take student Maurice Wright, who marched across the D.C. Armory stage to recieve his diploma from Eastern High. He's going military. Uncle Sam is always an option, and this year recruiters are using heavy hardware -- the unemployment figures -- as an inducement to sign up.

Maurice's mother cried as she watched her son become the first member of her family to graduate from high school. He'd won a battle, she said, likening their Potomac Avenue SE neighborhood, where she'd watch dope smoking and drug transactions outside her front door, to a spiritual battlefield where young black men and women are lost everyday.

"So many things could have turned him around," she told a reporter.

We all know those things, Drugs, easy money and the street life are at the top of the list. A 9-to-5 holds little attraction for a kid who can pick up a week's pay in an afternoon on the streets. It's a compelling choice, and some young people will take it.

For the others, college, skills training schools, government or military service offer the opportunity to make life work the way it does for the black role models they see around town and across the country.

They know the work ahead. Some struggled against the odds to complete what were only substandard educations. Others answered, "Why not?" to slick classmates who asked, "Why bother?" Still others learned from parents whose own experience-denied them an understanding of the value of an education -- parents for whom "equal opportunity" has been a meaningless phrase.

Our graduates grew up in a town where the poor and disadvantaged are slowly being abolished by progress, where their schools and their futures have been subordinate to the direction of the city. Instead of being groomed for the city's future leadership roles, these youngsters were left to make do in the public schools while middle class pupils escaped to private schools and the suburbs to dream their leadership dreams.

What now for the kids left behind will be answered with hard work, determination and drive. Firm resolve must propel them. They've got a long way to go with what seems so little to sustain them. But if love, prayers, encouragement and their own dreams mean anything, these kids have it licked.