Paula Young Shelton teaches at the Shepherd Elementary School in Northwest Washington. Her school was misidentified in a story yesterday about activities in celebration of Martin Luther King Day. (Published 1/23/91)

Eight-year-old Maurice Koo ticked off all he had learned about Martin Luther King Jr. in the days leading up to the national holiday. He was a civil rights leader. He started bus boycotts a long time ago after a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus. And he was the person who got named the "prince of peace" because he was so good.

So what did Martin Luther King Jr. teach him? If anybody ever tried to make him move to the back of the bus, what would he do? "Punch him," Maurice said matter-of-factly.

Some lessons may be harder to learn than others. But yesterday's celebration of the birth and life of King, an avowed proponent of nonviolence, brought one clear message to the crowd at Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ: The world is a better place because of him.

The two-hour ceremony of songs, speeches and a school play at the church in Northwest Washington was one of many memorial services held yesterday to mark the birthday of King, who was assassinated in 1968 after a life dedicated to ending racial discrimination.

About 1,500 people attended a breakfast sponsored by the Washington Inter Alumni Council of the United Negro College Fund at the Ramada Inn Renaissance. D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon led a tribute to King at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library in Northwest and later was grand marshal in a parade, brightened by sunshine, through Southeast Washington.

Nearly a thousand homeless people ate a dinner of chicken and rice at Calvary Baptist Church, which opened its doors and provided choir music and readings about King's struggles.

Dixon and D.C. Council member Hilda H.M. Mason later spoke at Peoples Congregational, urging a recommitment to King's dream of social justice.

The day at Peoples Congregational underscored hope. In a city burdened by drug dealing and death and in a world made vulnerable by war, a few hours with the more than 500 people who crammed into the community room there proved that something was right.

Fathers bounced infant sons on their laps. Mothers, like Susan Winfield, drew their daughters close.

It was a Monday afternoon of little girls dressed in velvet dresses and small boys subdued by starched white shirts and ties.

"It's important for them to spend some time on his birthday remembering what he was about," Winfield, a Superior Court judge, said of her daughters, Heather, 3, and Jessica, 8.

"I want them to have a sense of their culture and their history. Some kids don't even know who he is."

Winfield, 42, was a teenager when King's efforts in Alabama, Mississippi and later throughout the South put him at the helm of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Her father, a social worker, and her older sister participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Winfield tells her children those family stories.

She plays videos of the award-winning series "Eyes on the Prize" at home. Still, Winfield said, there is no substitute for her children joining others to clasp hands on King's birthday, or singing "We Shall Overcome" while fighting back tears or seeing other children walk on stage and play the roles of King and Rosa Parks.

"She knows about Rosa Parks," Winfield said of Jessica, "but not as much as she does when she sees another second-grader take on that role."

Paula Young Shelton, a teacher at Brightwood Elementary School, delivered a monologue of Rosa Parks. She asked the audience time and again to imagine what were once the realities of segregation in the United States.

"Can you imagine" not being able to ride a bus sitting next to a white person, she asked. "I just didn't think I should have to get up. Do you think I should?"

Kyshawn Route, 7, gave a resounding "no" to every question. She had practiced very hard for her role in the ceremony, she said. In a play presented by her school, she was the minister who asked King to begin the boycott. "It was a very important role," she said.

Maurice Koo had what he considered a most difficult role: the bus driver who ordered Parks to the back of the bus. In the process, it seemed, he learned the essence of intolerance.

"You have to have a lot of madness to do that. You have to get mad and then practice it every day," Maurice said.