THREE BUZZERS sounded one morning recently before Maureen O'Donnell finished the question. "Name the part of the body from which we get the English word gen -- " she had begun. "Genu: knee," answered Joel Allen, whose rapidfire mind had completed the English word genuflect. This kind of thing happened all morning. Coached by O'Donnell for the National Latin Bowl, which begins tomorrow and runs through August 13 at Stetson University in Florida, seven Virginia high-school students have been exercising their wits in response to O'Donnell's questions.

O'Donnell, who teaches at Woodson High School in Fairfax County, is the Bear Bryant of Latin coaches. In five of the last six years, her Virginia teams have won both upper- and lower-division Bowl championships (for students with more than two and less than two years, respectively, of Latin under their belts), and her classroom is resplendent (from the Latin resplendere, to shine brightly) with trophies. This year's lower-division crop is a good bet to burnish that record. Besides Rosanna Lo, 14, and Scott Herndon 15, from Thomas Dale High School in Chester, near Charlottesville, it includes Northern Virginians Pat Lo Presti, 17, from Paul VI in Fairfax, Josh Himwich, 15, from Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax County, and Allen, 16, Jon McAllister, 15, and Lisa Ischer, 17, all from Woodson.

They are all Latin sharks, and earlier this year three of them -- Allen, Ischer and McAllister -- were among only 58 entrants making perfect scores in the National Latin Exam. Of the seven candidates for the team, the top four will be chosen to compete.

A more engaging, well-rounded and attractive group of students would be hard to find. McAllister plans to enter the Olympic Games connected with the Bowl as a swimmer, Himwich as a runner. Asked if the other kids consider them nerds, the students admitted to being called "Latin wallies" (from the Latin pronunciation of vale, which means goodbye). "But they stop laughing when we bring home trophies and win scholarships," said Allen.

As these contests indicate, the classics are making a comeback. After a long period of decline in the 1960s and 1970s -- when Sputnikmania shifted curricula away from the humanities toward math and science, when mastery of ablative absolutes and the middle voice seemed irrelevant, perhaps even politically incorrect -- enrollment in Latin and Greek courses is on the upswing. Even more striking, a rekindled interest in the traditions of classical civilization has infiltrated the schools, even the primary grades.

Figures tell part of the story. In the peak year of 1962, slightly more than 700,000 students were taking high-school Latin. By 1976 the number had plummeted to 150,000. In 1982, the last year for which a total is available, the number had climbed back to nearly 170,000. This upswing has resulted in a shortage of Latin teachers, and some high schools are sending veteran modern-language teachers out for retraining as classicists. Enrollment in college Latin courses is at about the same level -- 25,000 students -- as it was in 1960. But classicists point out that this consistency is misleading. With high schools dropping Latin, many aspiring students have had to defer their classical enrichment until college.

There are no figures available for Ancient Greek at the high-school level, but Zeph Stewart, director of Harvard's Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., estimates that "only a few prep schools and magnet public high schools still offer it." Enrollment has dropped so far that the Educational Testing Service no longer offers an advanced-placement Greek exam. College enrollment has remained steady -- about 20,000 students a year -- since the mid-'60s, but again this phemomenon reflects a shift of introductory study to college years rather than a net increase in the number of students taking Greek.

Classicists have not left this renaissance to chance. The National Latin Exam -- the one which those three Woodson students aced to perfection this year -- is a calculated effort to whip up student interest. The exam is sponsored by the American Classical League, whose 3,600 members are primarily high-school Latin teachers. Unlike the advanced-placement Latin test, which is designed for fourth-year students seeking college credit, the NLE is open to all Latin students and is calibrated by year of study, from Latin I to Latin V. It's a friendly exam, 40 minutes long for easy administration in a single period and generous with laurels. Founded by now-retired Fairfax County teacher Jane Hall in 1978, the NLE tested 61,000 students last year; of these nearly 30 percent won honors ranging from certificates to $1,000-a-year college scholarships. "The exam has stirred up a tremendous interest in Latin," Hall said, "especially in the Midwest and West. We also offer a National Greek Exam, and this year we broke 1,000 {students taking it}." The lean years have obviously taught classicists something about academic marketing.

Classicists have also been developing new uses for their subjects. Rudolph Masciantonio, director of foreign language education for the Philadelphia school district, has pioneered a program for teaching Latin to elementary schoolchildren, many of them from inner-city backgrounds. Called Language Arts through Latin, the program entails 20 minutes of instruction per day for about 10,000 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. Formal grammar is not taught; rather, the students learn Latin as if it were their first language. The purposes of the program are to build English-language skills and stimulate interest in foreign languages, and the results have been impressive.

According to Masciantonio, Philadelphia Latin students have scored a full year ahead of control groups from comparable backgrounds in English reading and vocabulary tests. Most important, taking Latin changes many students' entire attitude toward language. "It gives them a fresh start and a feeling of success," Masciantonio said.

Commenting on the Philadelphia program, The Hellenic Center's Stewart said, "The students can approach Latin free from the stigma of not knowing standard English." Similar programs have been adopted in Worcester, Mass.; Indianapolis; Detroit; Oakland; and Los Angeles.

With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Joseph O'Connor, assistant professor of classics at Georgetown University, has developed summer institutes in The Aeneid and The Odyssey for elementary school teachers. At the workshops teachers read and discuss the epics (in English translation). The ultimate classroom applications are left to each participating teacher's creativity. Some primary teachers have included the study of myths in the curriculum, while teachers in upper grades have taught the American Founding Fathers' classical outlook in social studies.

Along with Mary Ann T. Burns, O'Connor is the author of a draft report, "The Classics in American Schools: Teaching the Ancient World," funded and published by the American Philological Association, the professional organization for college- and university-level classicists. Among the report's recommendations is the recognition of a "right" to the classics: "Latin language instruction in high schools should be available to every student who seeks it."

ONE OF the architects of the classical renaissance is Mark Morford, who has taught at prep schools in his native England and universities in this country. He is now professor of classics at the University of Virginia. The classics went into decline, Morford suggests, in part because university scholars and high-school teachers were not cooperating. "There was a fragmentation among classicists," he said, "and little contact between the American Philological Association and the American Classical League. I have no patience for university professors who look down upon schoolteachers."

During his three years as the association's vice-president for education, Morford has worked to bridge the gap between the levels of Classics instruction -- for example, by promoting the report mentioned above.

According to Morford a variety of students are drawn to a major in classics these days. "Some of them, of course, want to teach it," he said, "though unfortunately the field is particularly short of men. But we also get students who go on to law, medicine, business and government. I think there's a growing recognition that anyone who's survived a classics major probably has good analytical and administrative skills. Finally, some students take the classics for what I believe are the best of reasons. The material is inherently interesting and vivid, and the field attracts its share of excellent teachers."

The new, practical approach to the classics can be epitomized (from the Greek epitemnein, to cut short) in a scheme hatched by two of Maureen O'Donnell's former students, who dropped in on her coaching session one day last month. Victor Barocas, a chemical engineering major at M.I.T., and Kenny Chern, a pre-med major at Northwestern, have agreed to serve as chaperons for this year's team at the Bowl, but they intend to run a little business on the side.

"We're going to sell fortune cookies with fortunes in Latin," said Barocas. "We've got a bakery lined up to make us 5,000 cookies for $450. We think we can sell them for a quarter apiece." "The profit will go to the Woodson Latin Club," O'Donnell added.

It seems clear that classicists have come down from their ivory towers.

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer who took six years of Latin and two of Greek.