"I'm always first, why me?" sighed 17-year-old Lynda Jones, as she drew the premier spot in Sunday's 57th annual local Oratorical Contest sponsored by the D.C. Elks Department of Education at Shiloh Baptist Church.

Cheryl Wilson, 16, grimaced as she picked second spot, saying, "Well, second is good, because you can look at the first person and say 'I can do better.' "

Raymond Thomas literally jumped up and down when he pulled the third berth. "My grandmother told me she hoped I would be third because I could take my time and not be nervous," said the 17-year-old senior from Dunbar High School.

The three teens represented only a third of the high school students who signed up for the competition, which nets the winner a four-year scholarship totaling $1,500.

"These kids hear about the money and are interested," said W. T. Woods, director of Elks Education for the District. "But when they hear they have to do a nice long research paper, and then memorize it, the numbers dwindle."

The District winner goes on to tri-state competition June 20 in Wilmington, Del., and, if triumphant, to a regional contest July 11 in West Virginia, and, with luck, finally to the national round to be held at the Elks' national convention here Aug. 24.

Past winners of the National Elks Oratorical Contest include educator Mary McCloud Bethune, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Height, head of the National Council of Negro Women, and civil rights leader James Farmer, according to Joseph Beavers, Region II director of the Improved Benevolent Protected Order of the Elks of the World.

Traditionally the topic of the contest has been "The Negro and the Constitution," but Beavers said the students were not limited to it.

Before an audience of 50 friends, family members and Elks, the three teens competed with ringing telephones, traffic noise and the neighborhood street people and churchgoers outside for the judges' attention.

Jones, a senior at Cardozo Senior High School, spoke on "The Constitution: Investing the Power in the People," wringing her hands through the first few minutes.

Wilson, a junior at Cardozo, took the podium with the same directness with which she offered what she called "The Cheryl Solution" to the nation's fiscal dilemma in her speech, "The New Economy: Stumbling Block or Stepping Stone?"

Thomas, who hopes to become an attorney, was temporarily distracted by street noise as he shared his impressions of "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his dream and the U.S. Constitution."

The students were evaluated on the basis of their delivery, continuity, subject matter, enunciation and grammar by a panel that included the Rev. William Young, assistant pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church; James Carter, former principal of Ballou High School; and Gretchen Hill Gail, a retired communications specialist with the District school system.

When the results were announced, the three placed in the order in which they drew lots: Jones first, Wilson second and Thomas third.