At John Tyler Elementary School on Capitol Hill, spelling tutor Ronald Wells is known as a taskmaster.
"When you get to Ronald's table, you know you're going to get it," said Denise Dantley, his supervisor. "Ronald won't let you go until you get all the words right."
Despite his hard-driving manner, 16-year-old Wells has combined good humor and concern for learning to earn the affection of nearly all his young charges.
Most of them barely remember he is blind.
"I thought it would take awhile for them to adjust to me," said Wells, who has been blind since birth, "but they adjusted pretty well. Now they're sort of like my younger brothers and sisters."
Each day during the school year, Wells traveled by bus to Tyler after he completed his classes at Eliot Junior High near Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, from which he graduated last month. For three hours each day, he drilled students -- ranging from third to sixth grade -- to prepare them for spelling and math tests. He was one of 240 District tutors in the STARS (Student Tutorial and Recreational Support) program, a Department of Recreation program designed to assist at-risk schoolchildren.
"I always had an interest in children. I tutored my cousin when he needed help, and I always felt that I could go from there," said Wells. His mother, Juanita Wells, a teacher's assistant, got him interested in the STARS program.
Every Thursday, teachers at Tyler, where Wells attended second through sixth grade, would read him the list of words for the following week's spelling lessons. Over the weekend, he would take the words and "Braille them up," he said, referring to the system developed in the 19th century that allows the blind to read. Using a special device, he would record the spelling lists by converting the words into a series of raised dots and points on a piece of paper.
At after-school sessions the next week, students from each grade level would approach Wells's table in the cafeteria, where in rapid-fire fashion he would quiz them on "superintendent," "kilometer," "refrigerator" and so on. The students would either spell the words aloud or write them in Braille, which Wells also taught them.
The tutoring had an impact. Darnell Darlington, for instance, went from a D to a B in spelling under Wells's tutelage. Darnell's mother, Jean Darlington, credited Wells for igniting her son's interest in school.
"The way he was talking to the kids, I didn't believe he was blind," she said.
The secret to Wells's success, parents and students agree, is his sense of humor and concern for students.
"Ronald makes it fun for you to learn because he kids with you," said 11-year-old Valencia Brinkley, who will be a sixth-grader at Tyler. "He makes you feel good. He keeps you laughing while you learn." This year she received an A in spelling.
"Learning shouldn't be a lot of hard work all the time," said Wells, "so I would make up a lot of crazy sentences for the kids."
Another asset of Wells is that he "gives himself to students, and they pick up on that," said his mother. She said she always stressed the importance of responsibility to her oldest son.
"If I left home, Ronald was in charge. It didn't matter that he couldn't see." Her two other sons, Willie and Randy -- now 12 and 10 -- had to do what Ronald told them.
Supervisor Dantley said that Wells may convince others that disabled students can be good teachers. "Ronald doesn't want to be patted, he wants to be treated fair. Because he has been through so much himself, he understands the importance of education."
Wells's popularity extends beyond the elementary school where he works. This spring other District students elected him vice president of the Upper House of the citywide Student Council after a campaign speech that emphasized "togetherness" and "not looking at things as handicaps." Last month, Concerned Black Men, a civic group, presented him an award for achievement in education and community service.
For his part, Wells is modest. Although the apartment in Marshall Heights that he shares with his mother and brothers is studded with his many awards, trophies and plaques, he credits his success to "a lot of family support."
This fall Wells will enter Eastern Senior High School in Northeast, and plans to continue tutoring at Tyler as he has the past two years. His long-term goals include becoming a junior high English teacher.
"I was inspired to be an English teacher by my English teacher," Nancy Jones of Eliot Junior High. "She's just like my mom. She believes in what's right for children. She was always there to help us."
Wells wants to continue tutoring, to teach not only spelling, English and math, but also larger lessons as well. He is a firm believer in the value of education, and talks with pride of his move four years ago from a special program for the visually impaired to an ordinary classroom filled with sighted students.
"In the end," he said, "school works out for the best. You'll come out making more money and being able to take care of yourself as an individual."