In a community center in Southeast Washington, Thomas Derrick Ross reaches for a MasterCard application and surrenders the one thing he usually conceals from outsiders: the truth.

He writes his real name. He gives his correct age: 24. Supplies a valid address. And he uses his Social Security number -- not a friend's, not a ruse.

Before this day, he considered candor the mark of a snitch.

Ross is stepping out of the shadows of Benning Heights, a place where hustling drugs and dodging police became the norm, a place notorious for gunfire and its nickname: Simple City.

Ross had the steel and shrewdness to survive there yet seemed resigned to an inevitable fate. He stashed his illicit cash in his pockets -- small bills on the right, $50s and $100s on the left -- and spent it fast, figuring, "I didn't want to die with it on me."

Quick-tempered and compulsive, Ross emerged from a throng of District boys catapulted into manhood during the city's crack cocaine epidemic. Ross was 13 when it hit. For a decade, he reared himself, setting his own rules for right and wrong and scheming to get what he wanted. And like many of his peers, he became victim and villain, personifying the city's image of crime: young, black, male and violent.

At one point, even his mother feared him.

Yet there he is in the rec center of Benning Terrace public housing with 16 other young men, all newly employed in honest work and accepting forms from a First Union bank representative for charge cards, direct deposit, checking and savings accounts. As he applies for credit, Ross is giving up more than his name.

Thomas Derrick Ross is going legit.

Already, he carries a valid driver's license and a wallet -- two ordinary possessions, but symbols of Ross's new mind-set. In Simple City, a license had been a tip sheet for police, a wallet nothing more than tidy packaging for robbers. Like a tag team, drugs or violence had directed most of his behavior, guiding everything from making money to dropping out of school to choosing lovers.

When he talks about his troubled past, Ross puts himself in the midst of a cycle he did not start and could not stop: "It was just life." Turning his back on crime meant Ross would have to revisit and revamp every aspect of his life.

But could a man accustomed to a dangerous and seductive world adjust to a life of commonplace routines? Could a young man often unable to connect choices and consequences create a more promising future?

Even Ross offered no predictions about whether he could handle the first test the streets lobbed his way. "I wanted to do the things I'm doing now, but it was dangerous out there," Ross says. "It's still dangerous."

As he journeys from surviving to building a life, one worry tugs at him: "I keep thinking somebody is going to recognize me as that guy from Simple City."

IN THE GAME; "The power of one."

Without so much as a tryout, Ross is starring in the drama transforming a once seemingly hopeless community. Act I opened 19 months before that banking day last August, in the same community center.

In January 1997, the center -- a boxy room attached to the rental office -- was still a rec room devoid of children, a meeting place with few bookings. It sat squarely in the line of fire between warring factions of the Simple City crew, known as "the Avenue" and "the Circle." Ross hung with the Circle in the cul-de-sac on 46th Place, an open-air drug market.

From every perspective, violence ruled the neighborhood.

Residents cowered behind locked doors in Benning Terrace's dilapidated mid-rise brick buildings, more prison complex than family housing.

Players "in the game" -- Ross's euphemism for the lawlessness -- respected what he termed "the power of one," the one with the gun.

To police, Simple City was a Wild West. That month, police blamed ruthless gang feuds for the brazen daylight abduction and shooting death of 12-year-old Darryl Dayan Hall. Four young men eventually were convicted in his murder.

Darryl's death pushed crew members to attend mediation talks run by the Alliance of Concerned Men, a small band of black men dedicated to wiping out inner-city violence, and the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which helps low-income communities solve social problems.

Within days, the rivals did the seemingly impossible: They declared a cease-fire.

Repeatedly, the fragile truce got tested in the little community center. There, the Circle and the Avenue worked on dismantling their mistrust and restoring Benning Terrace, where buildings doubled as billboards for crew graffiti saluting the dead and taunting enemies.

At the center, public housing chief David Gilmore -- hired to rescue the city's poorly managed public housing stock -- pledged equipment and weekly paychecks for 30 former adversaries. Together they removed graffiti and replaced the development's scablike patches of earth with sod and flowers.

Gilmore, a taskmaster with a degree in social work, and alliance members, streetwise and skillful at winning the trust of wayward youths, urged the young men to lead the way in reclaiming their community. With that in mind, they took notice of Ross.

In his street attire -- T-shirts, cotton sweat suits and black skull cap pulled tightly across cornrows -- the ebony-skinned Ross resembled a half-dozen other guys half-listening to talk about making the peace hold. But something set him apart.

Other young men watched Ross, who rarely spoke except to level criticism. He was confident, intimidating. At times, without a word, Ross stood up in meetings he had not convened and stretched his wiry, 5-foot-11 frame as if to say, "It's over."

Bit by bit, alliance members began to believe Ross had been a Circle crew leader. They urged him to assume a new leadership role.

If Ross could dramatically change his life, the truce brokers surmised, he would symbolize hope for a city and nation desperate to move past the crime tainting an entire generation.

The year the truce began, the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives found that on any given day, nearly half of the black men in the District ages 18 to 35 were under criminal justice supervision. And between 1987 and 1997, 1,706 of the District's homicide victims were young people, 15 to 24; during that same period, 65 people, police say, were slain in and around Simple City.

The alliance's timing was perfect.

Ross was tired. As a man-child, he had become a teen father and learned more about weapons and the back seat of police cars than about honest opportunities. Even with the cease-fire, Ross often moved as if treading on enemy turf, light on his feet, eyes scanning people, doorways, cars.

The more the alliance encouraged him to change, the more he conceded he longed for a different life.

On the streets, the daily shooting stopped, drug dealing faded and crime in Benning Terrace dropped by 29 percent in a year's time. Children played outdoors, and Ross added his voice to the chorus of home-grown landscapers begging the little ones not to trample the grass.

His new journey was underway.

CHAMPAGNE AND CHANGES; "It's not always easy to keep your eyes on your goal."

Ross rushes into the Dunbar High School auditorium, hands his girlfriend two shoe boxes and tells her to guard them. "That's worth $400," he says.

Then he tugs at the blue gown covering his crisp white shirt and tan-and-cream tie, the perfect complement to stylish suit pants hanging just so over spotless two-tone shoes. Dressed to claim a dream, Ross hurries out to stand in line.

As he and other graduates march in to receive high school equivalency degrees, a teary-eyed Mary Ross stands at the edge of an aisle and follows her son's every step: "It's like he's saying to hell with the fear and to hell with the past."

"Don't be afraid of life," the commencement speaker advises them on that June day, suggesting they surround themselves with supporters. "It's not always easy to keep your eyes on your goal."

Already, Ross publicly relishes the attention his new lifestyle has brought, the praise from people in the neighborhood, stories in the press, invitations to speak out against crime. He is becoming a celebrity.

But in private, he sometimes is unsure of how to conduct himself, unsure of how others see his efforts. Uncertain whether the people closest to him would want to attend the GED ceremony, Ross played down its importance, as if to protect himself from disappointment if no one showed. But when a surprising number of folks begin to arrive, he wallows in the spotlight.

As he crosses the stage, Ross -- for years drawn to movies featuring high school milestones he had missed -- smiles broadly and pumps his right arm to acknowledge his family and alliance members shouting encouragement from the balcony.

The moment the ceremony ends, Ross begins counting the well-wishers reaching out to hug him. He poses for endless pictures and from the shoe boxes pulls out two bottles of Cristal, French champagne, nearly $200 each, one for him and one for another graduate, a neighborhood buddy. As they toast, Ross laughs and shouts, "Mom, I bought this with legal money."

During the celebration, housing officials pass the word that they will send Ross to Alaska to talk about his past and his role in ending neighborhood violence. At that moment, Ross seems certain he has stepped into that other world. "I've finally done it," he says. "No looking back."

But the race is hardly over. In many ways, Ross has only pushed off from the starting blocks. He still lacks a clear vision of where and how he will fit in outside Benning Terrace. He is like a soldier stumbling out of a war zone. Destination unknown. No map.

"I don't want too much stuff going on at once," he says to explain his lack of specific goals. "That's what I did before."

He had been trying to change slowly. First, he quieted his temper. Quit smoking marijuana. Ate better. In time, he gained 20 pounds and picked up a title: president of the Concerned Brothers and Sisters of Benning Terrace, formed after the truce by the rival factions.

But shedding a decade of bad habits meant walking away from nearly half of his life, wiping out the middle years.

At 24, Ross resembled an adolescent -- optimistic, naive. Unlike many of his peers, he had emerged from the streets with his enthusiasm intact and a youthful gleam in his eyes. Yet, for the first time, Ross is an adult in a society demanding responsibility, social skills, formal education and work experience. All the things that promising young men his age acquire over a period of years. All the things he lacks.

DEVELOPING A ROUTINE; "What would a white boy do?"

Ross struts into the city's traffic court at 1:35 p.m. and joins a group of alleged offenders waiting to contest tickets. Several times he pulls out a hearing notice accusing him of a 1993 offense -- failure to display a current inspection sticker. Repeatedly, he checks the appointment time, 2 p.m.

He plans to beat the ticket, which would leave only six more tickets, six more hearings to win to reach his goal: holding onto his new driver's license, a key credential in his quest for a legitimate lifestyle.

Just having a license alters Ross's thinking. He decides to buy insurance for his latest car, a battered gray Escort bought at the car auction and nicknamed "the Bucket." He'd rarely bothered to register, inspect or insure any of the six used cars he'd owned since junior high. When he got tickets back then, he simply didn't pay. He knew how to dodge the boot patrol.

Ross figured out early how to wing things. When he first got his license, after years of driving any way he pleased, he passed the test not by studying but by mimicking what law-abiding drivers did. "What would a white boy do?" he asked himself as he looked at the questions. After answering accordingly, he got his license.

As he waits for his traffic hearing, Ross rehearses a defense. Wasn't there. Never gave a U.S. Park Police officer his Social Security number -- maybe somebody else used it. After all, the guys he hung with swapped numbers to confuse the cops. Admitting the violation is not an option.

By 2:15 p.m., a fidgety Ross starts counting police officers.

Of those waiting to testify, he knows six from the streets, several since they were rookies. "They only got a few places to go, regular patrol, jump-out, homicide," he says. Pointing to an officer wearing a business suit, he notes: "It's around his time for vice. He's either vice or a detective."

At 2:20 p.m., Ross rests his elbows on his knees and stares at the floor. "I know I should have gotten drunk," he mumbles. "Courts and lawyers make me nervous."

A clerk calls Ross's name just before 3 p.m. and directs him to a hearing officer. The ticketing officer does not show. Ross doesn't need a defense. Within two minutes, the case and $100 fine are dismissed.

Ross grins as he leaves. He's triumphed over another of the mundane encounters that so often leave him uneasy, frustrated or just plain bored.

Life in the game never lacked for adventure, turning Ross into a restless hustler who knew that predictability invited danger. He conducted business as others slept, varied where he slept and traveled to hide his whereabouts. When the police did spot and chase him, he applied his motto of "get out and run," thus his preference for easy-to-abandon used cars. Even the watch Ross coveted was a sleek $1,195 Movado, a word meaning always in motion.

But routines, he now finds, are an unavoidable part of the second major credential he snares -- a j-o-b with a future.

Actually, it is a one-year internship in housing management training that pays $25,000. But to Ross, the opportunity surpasses his dreams and lands him at Catholic University, which provides the internship's classroom work.

For the first time since junior high school, the internship locks him into a pattern -- with a class schedule, homework and field assignments. The routines irritate Ross like an itch he can't reach. He was accustomed to activity but not to focus. Alliance members push him to stick with it, rise to the challenge and tame his restlessness.

It is early September, and Ross divides his time between classes and his fieldwork at a virtual ghost town, the soon-to-be demolished Frederick Douglass Dwellings, a Southeast public housing complex. Plywood covers the windows, and the few remaining residents seem to be in hiding. Without much else to do, Ross tackles paperwork.

In the cramped management office, he races through assignments, searching tenant records one day, preparing delinquency notices another. Even as the work slows, he cannot. He darts in and out of the office, up and down steps. Some mornings, he begins talking about lunch at 10:30 a.m.

And every day at work, he bumps into reminders of the past.

Approaching one apartment, and with not a soul in sight, Ross glances at the open spaces and paths between buildings and says, "This place has too many cuts," sizing up the paths as quick entrances and exits for a gunman on an ambush mission.

At another door, Ross knocks lightly. Harder. He pulls back. "Does that sound like the police knocking? I used to hate to hear that sound. You could run for blocks before finding out it wasn't the police."

As close to the surface as his old life remains, though, Ross is beginning to see a different future. Maybe one day, he says, he could manage his own business. One day soon, he says, he'll replace the Bucket with a new Altima. (He really wants a Honda Accord but rules that out because the model is "too easy to steal.")

For a few heady weeks, all things seem possible -- until Ross gets a good look at his pay stub. His take-home pay -- after taxes, child support and health insurance -- is about $500 every two weeks.

Months after opening the first check, Ross still remembers his disappointment. "I like to went crazy."

He coped. And that alone was a measure of how far he was moving from his past.

IN THE MIDST OF CHAOS; "I didn't care about nobody."

In the dark, a frantic Ross scrambles to collect guns scattered in the dirt beneath an apartment window at Benning Terrace. Each time he grabs one, he glances up, expecting to see a cop's face peering at him. The cop, he figures, will see only a thug with a gun and draw his service weapon. Ross can think of only one defense: Shoot first.

Ross, accustomed to running from the police, was willing to wound or kill an officer on that bizarre night in the mid-'90s because he felt trapped.

He and friends had been horsing around with guns when one accidentally wounded another. Someone alerted the police, and the young men lied to them, saying a mysterious gunman had knocked on the apartment door, shot their friend and disappeared into the night. They had tidied up the place by tossing guns out a back window. Ross was still hurriedly retrieving them as officers investigated.

To Ross, the story is so non-incriminating he uses it merely to describe the perils of his old life.

But how did he end up in the midst of such chaos?

It began when his parents met in 1970. Clarence Thomas Ross was 53, and his future wife, Mary Fergerson, was 13. The second of the couple's three children, Ross joined a family already spinning in a cycle of unwed teen mothers, domestic turmoil and drug addiction.

During their stormy 15-year relationship, the couple amassed enough secrets and betrayals for Clarence Ross to bequeath endless confusion at his death in 1985. He left 16 children by seven women.

Mary Fergerson Ross went back to an old drug habit: "I was doing what my family always did. We would block it out, cover it up or get high to it, thinking maybe it will all go away." Ross, then 11, and his siblings moved with an aunt to Benning Terrace.

As a seventh-grader at Fletcher Johnson Education Center on Benning Road, Ross was smart but preferred to be popular. To impress girls and buy designer clothes, he got in the drug trade. Eventually, he dropped out of school.

By 14, he was a juvenile delinquent so fascinated by guns that he used magazine pictures of them as pinups while he was confined to a group home. By 15, he had fathered a son. He thought the mother was 14. She was 12.

No one set limits for Ross. No one applied brakes.

He operated in a neighborhood with few male role models. In 1998, women headed 206 of Benning Terrace's 224 households; the majority of the 915 residents were children; and of the 83 men age 18 and older, only six were true elders, 62 or older.

Within a seven-month period, beginning in 1990, two events profoundly affected Ross. His 15-year-old brother, Patrick, arrested on a manslaughter charge, committed suicide in a juvenile facility, according to court records. Later, his mother was imprisoned for manslaughter after she stabbed a male acquaintance following an argument.

"Derrick flipped, his attitude, his behavior," Ross's mother recalled. "He became mean. Everyone was scared of him."

Ross simply says, "I didn't care about nobody."

Meanwhile, in the game, death eliminated more players. Ross bought a camera and snapped self-portraits, sometimes weekly. He wanted an up-to-date photo handy so no one would have to "put an old picture on my obit."

He lived in a war zone, but Ross dodged bullets and long jail sentences. He was never wounded. Between ages 18 and 23, he was arrested and charged in five felony cases, court records show, but most of the charges, ranging from armed robbery to unauthorized use of a vehicle, were dropped.

But the game had turned sour. Factions of the Simple City Crew began fighting -- beefing -- with each other.

"Dress and forget your gun? That's like going out without your drawers," Ross said. "It was better to go to jail for having a gun than to go to hell for not having one."

What kind of gun did he carry? "Can't tell you that," Ross said.

"I didn't look past today," Ross said of those times. "God let you wake up. That don't mean he's going to let you go back to sleep."

Even as the danger increased, Ross seemed resigned: "It was just life."

Then, Darryl Hall was abducted. For three days, a horrified city waited for news of the 12-year-old, snatched by gunmen wearing ski masks as he walked home from school. Darryl's frozen body was found in a ravine. He had been shot in the head. The child allegedly had sided with one of the rival Simple City factions.

Ross did not attend the first truce meetings aimed at preventing retaliation for Darryl's death. Alliance members assumed he was sending his boys to the negotiations instead. When Ross finally appeared, he questioned the approach to securing peace.

He argued that the violence would "stop when it stops, and y'all are trying to put pressure on it to stop." At the table, he wore black except for cream-colored, skintight gloves because he was so certain police would come in afterward and dust for fingerprints. They didn't.

Why not thicker gloves on that cold night? "Always thinking ahead," he said later. "You don't want to be caught trying to grab a gun and you can't even pull the trigger."

As he looks back, Ross realizes the truce brokers always considered him the Circle's leader, a conclusion he disputes just as forcefully as he denounces the "gang" label police use for the Simple City crews.

It was Darryl Hall's death, not Derrick Ross's word, that brought about peace, Ross maintains. The victims, finally, were too young.

"They were following us, the 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds," he says. "They were beefing. They were not going to reach my age. It was just wrong."

FAMILY STRUCTURE; "I don't believe in marriage."

It is 8 a.m. A child's gleeful chatter drifts into the hallway of a Northwest apartment building. Inside, Ross is on daughter duty.

Five-year-old Shaneiqua, wearing her school uniform, a navy blue jumper and white blouse, toys with her rose-colored sunglasses and squirms on a sofa beside her father. Without pausing, she announces her age, counts aloud using her fingers and offers a visitor a slice of her birthday cake. It will be another 45 minutes before Ross can walk Shaneiqua to school on this September morning.

He glances at his daughter's antics but continues to play a video game -- of Mission: Impossible.

Ross's efforts on the home front are piecemeal at best. Although he stays in the W Street apartment with Tamara Lockard, Shaneiqua's mother and his girlfriend of nine years, he has children by five women. None of the children shares his surname. Only Shaneiqua is likely to see him daily.

And now he has a secret that could shatter his relationship with Lockard.

The living room in the apartment reflects the forces tugging at him. One side of the room reveals the domesticated Ross: Fourteen large potted plants he has nurtured line the wall; above the television, rests his collection of ceramic figurines, a family of sorts that he calls "my little black people."

On the opposite side is a bogus wanted poster, photographed at an amusement park, showing Ross dressed as a 1940s gangster holding fake weapons above the caption: "Wanted by the FBI. $50,000 reward."

Lockard says Ross basically changes clothes at the apartment and still treats the Circle as home. Like holding onto the wanted poster, he clings to Benning Terrace and is shortchanging Shaneiqua and her, Lockard argues.

Her complaint is but one of the domestic pressures on Ross. He pays child support for only his oldest child, 9-year-old Thomas Turner, and only recently started that. The child's mother, Joy Turner, 12 when Ross fathered her child, maintains that the payments of $173 twice a month are not enough. She also worries that without a greater personal commitment from Ross, their son could be lost to the very streets Ross is trying to escape. Young Thomas, a good student academically, has been expelled twice from elementary schools because of bad behavior.

"While Derrick is changing his life, this is the time for him to come and sit and talk to his son," Turner says. "Thomas needs him. I don't have a male role model for him."

Although he has spent time with his son during the summer and on weekends, Ross insists that what young Thomas needs is more discipline from his mother: "He will be the perfect little angel when he's with me. But he feels as though when he goes back home with her he can do what he wants to do."

Ross says that he never planned to have children and that fatherhood sometimes was little more than a byproduct of the violence.

"Beef babies." That's what he calls some of his children because they were conceived when he needed a safe place to sleep while his crew was beefing.

"I don't believe in marriage," Ross says. "It's like saying you'll never think about looking at another woman. Why lie?"

Lockard knows that Ross has five children, counting Shaneiqua. But she's hearing rumors there is a sixth child out there by another woman, and she is threatening to leave Ross if he is lying about fathering yet another child. Ross repeatedly assures her that there is no new baby.

But there is -- 7-month-old Anthony. Ross plans to keep up the lies until Lockard confronts him with evidence he cannot refute.

Ross's father once shared a house with two sets of his children and their mothers, leaving Ross to picture gathering all of his children -- and their mothers -- into one household. That's what he'd like, he says.

Yet Ross concedes he has no chance of making that happen. So he will continue to spend time with his children. "A father's presence in the home helps the family structure," he says, "but it's not something that has to be for a family structure to work."

NEW OUTLOOK; "He's looking for a better quality of life."

When Ross stumbles -- the old temper flaring, the self-doubts resurfacing -- the alliance catches him in a net of encouragement, offering and delivering something no adult has ever promised him: a listening and nonjudgmental ear, trust and constant praise.

After months of watching the alliance, a group that firmly believes in the power of prayer, Ross gradually makes a new spiritual connection and begins to pray. Before, he says, "there was no reason to pray. . . . You sit there and pray and say, `Dear Lord, forgive me,' and then go right back on the street and do everything you were doing before."

At every opportunity, alliance members -- some of them ex-offenders and former drug users themselves -- urge Ross to link his own transformation to contributions he can make to society. To do, in other words, as they do.

It is the same theme that public housing director Gilmore sounds.

From giving Ross a job to arranging speaking engagements for him, Gilmore has developed a unique kinship with Ross, whom he frequently calls his new son.

"It is clear that this kid stepped forward once he had signed on and assumed a leadership role, which is, as much as any other single factor, responsible for the success," in reviving the neighborhood, says Gilmore, who expects Ross to become a housing management star.

Ross offers a glimpse of how the role might suit him during an October trip to the Seattle housing authority, one of the best-run operations in the country. During his fieldwork at Seattle's Yesler Terrace, a sprawling 537-unit town house complex, Ross offered his ideas of good management. He would search for signs of drugs during unit inspections. Dealers would receive no breaks. And he would call the police. He says: "The word would get around. I'm no nonsense."

Alliance President Parker calls Ross's new outlook an attempt to embrace and work within the system. "He is looking for a better quality of life," Parker says. "He's developing an inner strength. It has not been an easy transition for Derrick."

Parker and other supporters see Ross struggling against the pull of the Benning Terrace cul-de-sac known as the Circle. Stay away, Parker repeatedly warns him.

"He is more vulnerable, regarding everything he believes in and everything he's working for going down the drain, by being in that circle now," Parker says. "The only way he's going to really get away from it is to move totally out of it."

Ross shrugs off the warnings, saying he knows his mentors worry the Circle could trigger his old values. But "if you are not ready to be around triggers, you're not ready to do whatever you say you want to do," he counters.

After the truce, some people looking to buy drugs approached Ross and other young men as they stood in the Circle. Everyone would look to Ross to school the potential buyers. Sometimes Ross walked away. Sometimes he curtly dismissed them: "You got the wrong year. You must be thinking about three years ago."

But even Ross concedes that trying to build an ordinary life is putting him under extraordinary pressures.

When he focuses on school, his babies' mothers complain he is neglecting his family. When the guys in the Benning Terrace coalition grumble to the alliance that Ross seems too busy for them, he spends more time at the Circle and ends up several papers behind at school. Sometimes, he looks sleep-deprived. Other times, he commits to being in two places at once.

And money remains a problem. Ross still has not bought his Altima, largely because of a faulty credit report.

"If you're illegal, you don't have to worry about credit," Ross says. "I would have my car by now. Doing things by the law is more stressful than breaking the law."

During a management class at Catholic, Ross studies a handout of positive and negative life changes. He shakes his head: "I'm off the chart." A score between 150 and 300 indicates chronic stress.

Ross's score is at least 329.

HIDDEN SCARS; "He's always conscious of the fact that anything can happen."

More than once, Ross's mother suggests that he consider talking to a professional counselor about the invisible wounds left by his old life, his old disappointments.

"I don't think he's begun to deal with . . . feeling too good or feeling too bad," she says.

During those talks, she reflects on the prison therapy that helped her become sober. After her 1996 release, she chose new directions, volunteering at a center for AIDS prevention, living away from old Southeast drug haunts and studying social work at the University of the District of Columbia.

"He's always conscious of the fact that anything can happen," she says of her son. Ross has not taken her advice to seek counseling, and he continues to drink -- a habit that deeply troubles his mother.

After work, hanging out with the guys, during airplane flights, in nightclubs, Ross drinks. Hennessey, Heinekens, Zombies.

Sometimes, before facing an audience, Ross will have a couple. "I drink when I want to talk," he says. "Other than that, I'm so used to being on the defensive that I won't talk."

Ross says his mother and other relatives are anticipating problems and assume that since he is no longer smoking marijuana he must be drinking excessively.

"I could be twisted right in front of them and they wouldn't know unless I wanted them to know," he says. "People drink and do whatever they do because they want to. It doesn't mean they are going to do something real violent."

TEST FROM THE STREET; "Someone is trying to destroy everything these kids worked for."

Inside his aunt's apartment in the Circle, Ross is playing video games when the shooting starts.

The sound seems alien. There has been no gunplay in the Circle since the truce. Ross looks out a window, sees nothing and returns to his video game. Still curious, he decides to look around outside and heads for the door.

No one stops him.

Shortly after 10 p.m, alliance member Eric Johnson receives a call at home and listens in disbelief to sketchy details: Three shot. In the Circle. All en route to the hospital. Two dead.

It is the night before the second anniversary celebration of the neighborhood peace.

When the caller names the dead, Johnson's heart sinks. Both had shown such promise. Everyone had been certain the young man so eager to celebrate his GED, the one everyone believed was so suited for college, would have had a bright future.

Johnson races to his car for the long drive from his home in Charles County to D.C. General Hospital. "Somebody is trying to destroy everything these kids worked for," Johnson thinks. "All that work. I've been around these guys for two years. . . . They had changed their attitudes."

Changed enough not to retaliate? The second the worry surfaces, he shoves it aside. Focus. Get to the hospital.

Johnson rushes in to find young men from Benning Terrace and alliance members in the lobby. "They're gone," Johnson says, so drained of hope that his words are more statement than question.

From the middle of the group comes a voice: "Someone tried to spoil our celebration, but it ain't going to happen."

It is Ross.

When Ross left his apartment that night, he saw a police car pull into the Circle. He discovered that three men were wounded, none fatally. The ambulances swept in, and Ross followed them to the hospital.

Behind the emergency room door, two of the wounded, including Ross's GED commencement buddy, give a thumbs-up and smile.

In the hospital lobby, the talk does not turn to getting even. Strength of character, not a show of force, comes from Ross. The shooting had been a test. Ross understands he cannot control everything that happens in life, but he can control his response.

The next morning, he's back in the Circle with his buddies, but at the head of a parade celebrating the truce. And he is dealing with the shootings from a church pulpit, where he talks about the importance of maintaining the peace. "I wasn't doing it alone," he says. "Everyone in the neighborhood helped."

Ross is now 25, a milestone many of his friends never reached. And he once again lives in the Circle, where he returned after Lockard left him. She pinned down the truth about baby Anthony.

Ross completed the housing internship program. Of the 12 that began the program, he is one of six who passed a rigorous eight-hour national certification test for managers. At the program's graduation ceremony two weeks ago, Ross stood behind a red and white banner proclaiming "Celebrate the Change" and acknowledged his growth.

"This program," he says, "was a chance for me to prove that I could do more and I could do what I always thought I had in me and I could do more to show other people what they could do for themselves."

Ross now works in customer relations in Housing's Anacostia Regional Office on L Street SE. In his spacious office, he operates two computers and has voice mail. The walls and file cabinets display his new management credentials, framed pictures of Ross with alliance members and Gilmore and snapshots of his recent past -- trips to Seattle and Texas.

Still, Ross sees himself as a work in progress.

"I'm in a way station. I can't describe the new me because it's still happening."

FULL CIRCLE; "We haven't played this game in the Circle since I was about 13."

As the evening sun slips away, children and parents linger in the shadows of the sentrylike buildings in the Circle. A black van blocks the entrance, and a few feet away, a young man, still wearing work clothes, hunches low and in a deep voice yells, "Batter, batterrrrrrrr."

Before the echo fades, a silver bat sends a green tennis ball soaring over the heads of Ross and others scrambling to catch it and earn their turn up. "You think you Sosa?" one of them shouts to the hitter.

For a couple of hours, the Benning Terrace cul-de-sac is a playground, filled with shouts of "catch it, catch it" and "you're cheating." Most of the players are in their twenties. Some in the outfield drag on cigarettes between plays. Ross now and then steps over to a fence and sips from a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag.

"We haven't played this game in the Circle since I was about 13," Ross says.

Got to go, he then blurts with childlike enthusiasm. "I might get picked for this game."

CAPTION: On the journey: After growing up in Simple City, Ross is taking a long road into a larger world.

CAPTION: A degree of difference: Ross celebrates after receiving his high school equivalency degree. At left is his mother, Mary Ross, and on his arm is daughter Shaneiqua.

CAPTION: In the Bucket: Ross gets in his used car, a Ford Escort wagon, duly licensed and insured. He's hoping to save money and get credit to replace it with a new Altima.

CAPTION: Police beef: Ross and members of the Alliance of Concerned Men meet with 6th Police District Cmdr. Rodney D. Monroe. Ross insisted on meeting after police stopped him and forced him to kneel.

CAPTION: Daughter duty: Ross plays a video game and shares a laugh with daughter Shaneiqua before taking her to school. Shaneiqua is one of Ross's six children.

CAPTION: Learning the job: Ross and Wilbert Johnson enter a unit in a Seattle public housing complex as Ross trains in housing management.

CAPTION: Work time: Ross uses a Housing Authority-issued laptop in a Seattle hotel room during a training trip in October, downloading pictures from a digital camera. Above, after passing a national certification test for housing managers, he hits the phone at the authority's Anacostia Regional Office, where he works in customer relations.