For Torina Carter, the chance to see Nelson Mandela in person was mystical -- to sing for him was mesmerizing.

Carter, 17, a recent graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, has sung for many a celebrity. There was the time she sang a solo for Barbara Bush and the First Lady walked up on stage and kissed her. Then she sang for the cast of "Sarafina!" and the performers, many of whom are stars in their own right, applauded her.

Last night, Carter, who grew up in Southeast Washington, lifted her voice for the deputy president of the African National Congress during a rally at the Washington Convention Center.

Although she was one voice of 80 men and women in the D.C. Youth Chorale Program Festival Chorus, and although the room held thousands of others waiting to see the man who had been freed in February after 27 years in a South African prison -- she felt honored.

"All I can say is he's heaven-sent," Carter said. "He's like nobody else."

The night brought the abstracts of the South African struggle into reality for Carter. Like many young people in the District, Carter knows that the visit from Mandela is significant. She knows the man is great, that his visit to her city is historic, that her place on the program is "something to tell your grandchildren about."

Carter learned about Mandela in a brief lesson in eighth grade. Until this week she couldn't really define apartheid, although she knew that blacks were denied equality and rights in a land far away. She didn't know that sedition was the criminal charge that sent Mandela to prison for a term of life. But she said whatever it was, it was important enough that Mandela was willing to die for it, and she admires that.

She wasn't quite sure how many years he spent in prison or that he broke boulders to gravel on Robben Island, but she knows "he's a brave black man. If it was me, I . . . uh uh," she said shaking her head. "I don't know what I would have done."

The core of the visit had not hit Carter Monday night as the chorus practiced in the sanctuary of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, Third and I streets NW.

She talked about him as a great man, but the salt was missing from the words. The pictures of South Africa were a bit too far away that night.

Then she turned her thoughts to "Sarafina!," a Broadway musical about children in South Africa. And the struggle came home. She described the scene in the play when a terrorist riddles a classroom of children with bullets.

"I cried," Carter said. "I was thinking this is still happening and I was trying to ask the question why is it happening. When I was looking at the guard shooting, it wasn't just so much the children, but they were killing the children too."

Carter said she cried not only for the children in South Africa but the children who were dying in Washington.

"At that point I was thinking of friends I've lost because of wrongdoing, but those {South African} children were dying for something that was right."

Last night, the chorus sang "Rock-a My Soul," a spiritual, chosen because "it's a philosophical song of faith," said Edward Jackson, executive director of the D.C. Youth Chorale Program. And "Born to Die" because it speaks of martyrs who are born to die so that others might live.

Last night, Carter was among the chorale members who had been gathered from far and wide when Jackson was asked to perform at the rally. They wore all black -- black dresses, black shirts, black skirts, black pants. And they stretched their faces in song.

Carter's parents were not there. They could not get tickets. They were watching at home on television to catch a glimpse of her.