On my first day as tutor in the District of Columbia's public schools, the third-grade teacher escorted me and three youngsters into a tiny room beside her classroom. She gave me a large pad on a tripod and some felt-tip markers, and told me that the children were studying division.

The first problem I wrote on the pad was 54 divided by 9. When I saw the hands of all three of my new students shoot up so swiftly, I suspected it was too easy for them. But then came their answers.

"Seven," said the first.

"Fourteen," responded the second.

"Twenty-four," answered the third.

So much for division, I thought. Maybe they could handle some multiplication.

"What's 6 times 1?" I asked.

"One."

"What's 5 times zero?"

"Five."

That was my introduction to Crystal, Shaye and Robert, three 8-year-olds in the third grade at Bruce-Monroe Elementary on Georgia Avenue NW. By the tough new standards in the D.C. schools, my pupils were failures. They were among the 10,000 first, second and third graders who were unable to master the reading and math skills required for promotion last semester. They were reading on a second-grade level and having trouble doing simple subtraction, let alone division.

My job, as a tutor in the Operation Rescue program, was to try to help improve their skills so they could pass into the fourth grade in June. I was one of about 1,000 volunteers in the program, helping out a troubled school system that lacked money and teachers. It seemed a noble experiment.

Now, in retrospect, the value of my tutoring seems uncertain. It has helped the students, but they are going to need more than just my three hours a week to bring their skills up to grade level. They need extra help at home and from their teacher.

I came to the school as a reporter with no teaching experience, and was soon face-to-face with youngsters who had been separated from the rest of their classmates to spend three hours a week with a total stranger. And I was certainly a stranger.

One of the remarkable things about our time together had nothing to do with math or English, but with the interaction of people of different races, different cultures, different parts of the city. Here were three black children living in the Nation's Capital in 1981 who before I came along seemed to have had little or no dealings with white people.

It was an interesting experience right from the start -- sometimes frustrating, sometimes funny, always enlightening.

"Can I go to the bathroom?" Crystal asked at five-minute intervals that first day.

"I'm not doing this junk," announced Robert, who was having trouble memorizing his multiplication tables. He began swirling around in a swivel chair. That chair actually was meant for the tutor, but Robert had gotten to it first, so I was sitting on one of the foot-high plastic chairs meant for third graders.

Crystal persisted with her bathroom requests and finally got my permission. She took about 15 minutes to return, during which time I was sure she had drowned, and I would be held responsible.

When she finally did return, she announced to the rest of the group: "I'm so-o-o-o sorry I took so-o-o-o long."

It was right about then that she discovered she could see the veins underneath my skin. She began running her fingers over them. Soon she discovered my hair. "You got some long hair," she said, fingering my hair as I tried to get her attention back to 6 times 6.

Shaye, meanwhile, had grabbed one of my felt-tip markers and was drawing little faces all over my teaching pad. Robert was staring out the window at the front of the school.

"Somebody's down there smoking dope!" he shouted.The two girls ran to the window to see.

Just then a school counselor came in and asked me if I needed anything.

"Some math books might be nice," I said.

Soon after, the 3 o'clock dismissal bell rang. I thought all three children would bolt out the door. Instead they lingered around me, rubbing against my shoulder, examining my hair and veins again. I finally had to tell them to go home.

The first session gave me a splitting headache and a greater sympathy for all schoolteachers. I worried that I would never be able to teach my students division if they didn't even know the multiplication tables.

But they certainly had been nice children. Crystal had grabbed hold of my hand and taken to calling me "Mommy" and the "Miss Judy," even though I had told them they should just call me by my first name. And they all had been so eager to give out the scratch paper, sharpen the pencils, "help" in any way they could.

I decided to return.

The second lesson was about contractions. Frances Roche, the regular third-grade teacher, kindly wrote out a series of contraction in felt-tip marker on little cards that I could flash in front of the children. She also gave me a mimeographed written assignment on contractions for them to do.

During that session, I was in charge of a fourth student, a little girl named Nicole. The things Nicole said were perhaps just the innocent outbursts of a child, but they often seemed to carry the weight of an adult's thoughts.

I asked Nicole to give me a sentence using the contraction "I'm."

"I'm a dumb girl," she said.

"Who told you you're a dumb girl?" I asked.

"I did," she answered.

Later she began to play with my hair, as Crystal had done that first day.

"Your hair [is] so pretty," she said, drawing out the last word. "My hair's not pretty," she said of her own short braids, which were clipped against her head with barrettes.

I responded to Nicole with something as embarrassingly trite as, "Oh no, you have pretty hair, too." But from then on, I made a point of always complimenting the children, not just for getting an answer right, but for their clothes and appearance.

During the second session, I decided to make ever lesson a competition. Each pupil's name was written on my teaching pad and a check was placed after it whenever a question was answered correctly. The child with the most correct answers was the winner. From then on, it seemed, my pupils were constantly shooting their hands in the air for every question and shouting, "Please, please, pick me!" followed by a chorus of "Me, me, me!"

This was the first breakthrough. It was as if nothing I was trying to teach them was of any interest until the concept of winners and losers was introduced.

It worked particularly well for Robert, whom I couldn't even get to turn around and look at me during the first session. Now he was fighting to be called on. He was the first one to finish his written assignment on contractions. A great expression of delight passed across his face when he was declared the winner. Robert, I felt, was coming around.

The third session, the children were jumping out of their seats when I came in. They seemed to enjoy the attention. Other children in the class were begging me to let them venture into the little room and be tutored. Crystal, Shaye and Robert would always say, "Keep them out. They can't come in here. Let's lock the door."

It was after the third session that I began walking the children home, each on a different day. I felt this would establish new ties between us.

Robert slid down the railings of the staircases from the fourth floor down as we headed out of the school toward his house.

On the street, he kept a safe five steps in front of me. We passed the Pride and Joy (New and Nearly New) Clothes Shop, a few liquor stores and a bakery -- a tiny storefront with boarded-up windows, a swinging screen door that didn't close properly and a small sign in faded paint. I asked Robert if he'd like to stop and get a doughnut.

"They used to be a dime, but now they're 15 cents," he explained, speaking his first words since we had begun our walk.

Soon, about 10 other children from his class came clamoring to the bakery door, asking me if they could have a doughnut. Somewhere in that boisterous confusion, I got the idea that maybe if the competition was working so well in class, there should be a reward for the winner -- a doughnut.

That day, as he did just about every day, Robert went down the block to "The Sal," the Salvation Army recreation center, where he spent most of the afternoon hunched over the pool table, chin in hand, staring intently at the action. Every time someone scored, Robert ran to add up their points, displaying an acumen for math he rarely showed in class. Then I realized Robert could focus his attention on things when he really wanted to.

Slowly, my first impressions of these children began to change.

It was pouring rain on the day of the fifth session. Robert smiled up at me, took my hand and asked: "Are you gonna walk me home today, Miss Valente? Please walk me home."

But the session was all downhill from there. The rain seemed to affect the children. I could not get them to focus on anything. The room where we usually met was locked and no one seemed to have the key, so we went into a large open area that could have held three classrooms. The lesson was Roman numerals. It was the first time I tried the doughnut routine.

They could recognize all the Roman numerals, except for those like IV and IX, where you get the correct number by subtracting the I from the number that follows it.

After about an hour of flashing cards with Roman numerals and going over the answers, the children seemed to get it. Robert again got the most right an won the doughnut. But Shaye was still having trouble with the IVs and IXs, so I stopped to help her individually. That probably was a mistake.

Robert and Michael, another boy who had joined us for that session, climbed up on a counter and then onto a 12-foot-high supply closet. They were dancing on top of it. I screamed at them to get down. Once down, Robert sat in a swivel chair while Michael wheeled him around the room, making sounds like a motorcycle.

This was personally the most discouraging session. I had really thought I was beginning to get a handle on these children. I kept thinking of the Little Prince who tames a fox in the Antoine de Saint-Exupery book by establishing ties between himself and the fox. Art did not seem to be imitating life in this case.

When I arrived for the next session, they were running up to me and asking, "Let's play whoever gets the most right wins a doughnut." But the lesson was again multiplication and division, their worst areas. I'd ask Robert what 5 times 9 was, for example. He wouldn't know. I'd tell him, 45.

To get 5 times 10, he would then count 45 plus 5 on his fingers -- under his desk, so I couldn't see -- and get the answer that way. Each time he would give me a wrong answer, and I'd correct him, he would slap his hands to his face, as if to say, "How stupid I am." Toward the end of the session, his face dropped, he became teary-eyed and said sadly: "I'm not gonna win the doughnut."

I wrote out all the multiplication tables for Robert to study at home with his mother. "I'm not gonna ride my bike today," he promised. "I'm gonna study."

The next class, the last one before Easter break, Robert came back with the multiplication tables I had given him. They were crumpled up from use. His mother had been practicing them with him, he said.

"What's 3 times 8?" I asked him.

Twenty-one, I mean 24."

Six times 1?"

"Six."

"What's 4 times 10?"

"Forty -- 50 -- no, 40."

Letter-perfect, albeit with a little stumbling. But certainly much better than the first session.