In a Sousa Middle School workshop yesterday, computers ruled -- and students were the masters of the machines.

Bruce Harris, 14, raced to be first to assemble a fast computer after months of tutelage by four Oak Hill Youth Center residents, including 18-year-old Reginald Nichols.

Nichols, who recently finished 14 months behind razor wire at the District's detention center in Laurel, said the world of motherboards and serial ports opened his eyes to fresh possibilities: "I'm learning something that I never thought I'd be doing. I just like it, putting it together, knowing what everything is."

Why did he get into trouble with the law? "Being dumb. I didn't want to listen to nobody. I wanted to be the man."

Begun in January, the program connected four teenage Oak Hill residents, in custody for nonviolent crimes, with a half-dozen students at Souza, in Southeast Washington. All four Oak Hill youths have since been released. One is earning $23,000 a year at a computer company, program organizer Glenn Simmons said.

Bruce, a Sousa seventh-grader, the winner of yesterday's first round, said he learned lessons about life and computers alike from the Oak Hill youths: "They did the wrong thing, but as long as they've got their act together, that's all right with me."

CAPTION: Sousa Middle School seventh-grader Bruce Harris races to assemble a computer. His prize was the computer.