PUBERTY IS WHEN you start painting each fingernail a different color. When Oxy 5 and Clearasil are cluttering the bathroom sink. When dropping water bombs from the second floor of the boy's room is fun, but so is holding hands at Hardee's. Girls get bumps under their shirts, boys get fuzz on their cheeks. Both of these developments are serious. Suddenly, your voicebox is making strange squeaks. Your sister says you're growing tall and not up; your brother thinks you're a royal pain in the you know where. Before you go to bed, you wash your hair with egg and beer, or yogurt and bananas. Then you iron it. And put Scotch tape in it. You go to Eddie Leonard's Sandwich Shop for pinball, and you blast WPGO and WOOK until your parents go out of their gourd. Like a lot of things, it is an age more easily felt than understood, more known than fathomed. Puberty has a stricter definition than adolescene - and is a lot harder to handle. The only thing constant about it is change, the only thing clear about it is confusion. It is like a tunnel of time, and you have to go through. It isn't pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey anymore, but it isn't cruising through the hamburger stand yet, either. It is hurry-up-and-wait, it is six of one and something of the other. It is zits and warts and cherry lip gloss and the inability to explain. In a way, said a 14-year-old just finishing his passage, it's always spring. Said another: Puberty is where you hold till you go to heaven. There are 11.5 million Changelings out there between 12 and 14. So here, on Mother's Day, 1979, are eight of them, going through.

Other profiles on page £6. 'Sometimes Things Are Changing Inside Faster Than I Can keep Up With Them.'

Michael Edson's father is dead. He was in his 80s when he died, and he had been married before. His son didn't know this. "They said he was going to be buried next to his first wife and I said, 'Whoa. First wife?' I didn't know, maybe he was embarrassed, maybe he wanted to protect me from something."

He's 14 and boney with a preppy watchband and Hush Puppies and a blue nylon windbreaker. Some of his sentences come out squeaky. He has two big sisters. His mom is a social worker. The T-shirt says, "Celebrate Life."

"I'm really interested in the theaters," he says, chawnking into an apple. "Some sort of visual art. I'm a technician, basically. I'd like to design sets. The problem here is the unions."

So many kids in this school have one parent, he says. "It's unreal. Look in the catalogue. They don't list whether it's a divorce or a death. In my family I'm the quote mature unquote man of the house." This gets a flick of a grin.

Doesn't have a steady girl. "I've got some friends who are girls. That's different. One really good friend I have is a cross-country skier. I like doing thing with her. And I have these other girls who are just swimming in money. They dress up on Saturday and go to Mazza Gallerie. They're the Gucci set."

A lot of times, he says, you feel grownups are the "enemy." He says it laughing. "Most parents don't really know their kids. They say they know them. But what they know is what your're like around them.

What's embarrassing is going into a restaurant with kids your age and hearing adults snickering. "They think you're just a whipper-snapper trying to play grown-ups. Well, I'm not a damn whipper-snapper. Lots of places, the waiter comes over and starts mopping the table while you're sitting there. You're a kid; you have no feelings. You don't mind. Right now, I'm paying adult prices at the movies - but I can't get into adult movies. It isn't fair."

Maybe that's one reason he likes hanging out at American U., which is across from his house. He's not sure. He knows maybe 15 kids over there . He kicks the soccer ball around with them. Sometimes he walks through the campus on his way to school. They call him their little mascot. His mom isn't exactly crazy about the idea.

"She knows what I'm going through right now, though, so she doesn't order me not to."

Is he happy? Of course, he says immediately. "I have no reason to be unhappy. Or ashamed of what I don't have. Life is pretty exciting when you're 14. There are a lot of possibilities. Sometimes things are changing inside faster than I can keep up with them."

He doesn't think he's terribly smart. "I have to pay attention. I have trouble ecalling facts. I can keep ideas, though. And I have ideas. Some people have said I'm more on the intelligent side of intelligence."

About his dad (who was a distinguished journalist): "I've been thinking some on it. You know, he was probably ashamed to be so old when I was growing up. He couldn't play catch with me, like other kids' dads could. He never really came out and said anything. But I knew. I think I learned things from him I wouldn't have gotten from a younger father.

"I was very proud to know him."

Michael Edson, who is eating a sandwich, chokes a little. "The sandwich," he says, swallowing. 'You Don't Play To Win This Game. You Play to Exist.'

Overhead: 2 fluorescent lights. On the door: "After High School What???" Taped to a wall: "Visit America through Books."

"I hate offices," says Jeff Mathis, 12, short and sure. "So what are we talking about?"

Girls? Ugh.

TV? Makes a face.

The Shah of Iran? "Those are all stinky subjects. What I'm interested in is this." Two outsized, Illustrated books appear from under the table. He shoves them over.

"It's called D and D: Dungeons and Dragons. Everything starts with the dungeon master. You play with 12-sided polyhedral dice and roll for strength intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity, and charisma. I could have gotten the $9.95 set with the dice and the basic gamebook. That covers the first to the third level of experience. See, if you're a first-level wizard, you get one first-level spell."

But how do you win?

Reproachful look: "You don't play to win this game. You play to exist."

He's in a green turtleneck, plaid pants, sneaks. "Just regular old sneakers - Jox, I think," he says, bored with the question. He goes to H.B. Woodlawn in Arlington, an alternative public school. His hair falls like a helmet. His lip puckers and pouts. He's a little chubby. "So is my dad - I don't like to say fat."

Arthur, his pal, who also plays D and D, is waiting in the hall. Occasionally Arthur climbs up and makes faces in a window over the door. "I told him to stay in the cafeteria. What a fink."

Pasted on his blue vinyl note-book is a decal of something called EF-11A TJS. "Technical Jamming System. Grumman makes it. Actually, I'm more interested in the F14 and F16. I don't care what they do. I just like the electronics."

His dad is an engineer, his mom a physicist. "See, if you get a good job, you can avoid the army. Because I don't intend on killing anybody. I'm not going to go over and clobber somebody just because the military-industrial complex has to sell weaponry. I wish there was no such thing as the weapon. Modern technology, yes. Solar energy, yes."

On girls: "I used to have two. One of them could win the Conceited of the Year Award every month. They used to mug me to get my grades. Actually, girls aren't very important yet."

One of the big problems of being this age is that people talk down to you. "We had this guy talked to us like we were in kindergarten. As if we didn't know anything about his cruddy old animals."

Small sigh. "The world, it's just going . . ." He makes a downward spiral with his fist: an F14 out of control.

Twice a week he goes to Kenmore Junior High for judo lessons. "See, my dad thought I should take it cause I've been picked on a lot by the bullies around here. The other day, a kid threw a rotten apple at me. I think the reason there are bullies is because somebody else is bullying them. Maybe their parents."

Eighth grade will be better. "We have these Town Meetings every Thursday, but, really, they're a waste. For seventh graders. Seventh graders have no real voting power. You get laughed at. You just feel in between." 'I Already Am Somebody.'

The building is old, made of brick and stone. Once the neighborhood was white. Then it was black. Now it's turning white again. The Gandy Dancer restaurant is in the neighborhood; so is a corner grocery with plywood boards stuck between the cashier and the customer. Annettee Curtis goes to school at Stuart Junior High. She comes on a bus from Tennessee Avenue. She is 14, the sixth of seven children. Her dad is a roofer.

"Hey, I want some of that," a boy following her on the sidewalk had said that morning.

"Hey, why don't she look at me? "his companion had taunted.

"Boy," she had said, turning furiously, "you're not old enough for some of this."

She wears an immaculate white turtleneck, a black jumper. Her hair knots behind her head; little wisps stand out at her temples. Though she seems extraordinarily poised, self-possessed, she still cracks her knuckles. And her painted nails are bitten down. "Just when I'm nervous," she explains.

She went to a party the previous weekend. There was drinking and smoking. She's not sure if it was pot. "One of my friends tried to get me to smoke some of it. 'It's so good, and everybody's doing it,' he said. Well, I said, I don't want to be doing what everybody else is doing."

Someday, she'd like to be a doctor. Or maybe a secretary. Not just any secretary - for a lawyer, or maybe the president. She says one older sister goes to American U., another works in a bank. Last year, Annette won the spelling bee. She was also president of the seventh grade class. And when she took charm at Sears, she made runner-up in Miss Congeniality.

"I probably got more mature because of my older brothers and sisters," she says, thinking hard on it. Then, immediately. "Well, I wouldn't really mind being a mother, though I'm not too much involved with having babies. I've come too far. If I had one, though, I'd keep it. But I think I'd rather adopt one."

She's been bothered by older men, she says. One time, coming home from a friend's house, there was this man in a car. He kept honking. At the corner he started to get out. She refused to break into a run. He drove away.

"I didn't even look up."

No, she doesn't hate white people at all, though sometimes it seems like everybody else does. "Most kids, they say, 'I hate Whitey.' Maybe they see 'Roots' on TV and they start talking bad. But I say 'Roots' was a long time ago."

She doesn't watch too much TV. "At night I like to come in and fix my hair and iron my clothes for the next day. I know some kids don't care about things like that. But I like to be my own person. I want to be somebody."

Shyly, she tacks this on: "I already am somebody." 'It's Not Easy Being a Parent. I Feel Sorry For Them.'

Elise Cohen has pierced ears and eyes like bright brown marbles. She attends H. B. Woodlawn in Arlington. Today she's in sneakers, corduroys, a zip-up jersey. She is 14. On her notebook is a close-up of a gorilla.

Her parents were divorced three or four years ago, she says. "Everybody's a lot easier now. The main thing was for us to be happy, so we had a say in it. I think 99 percent of my friends' parents are split up. I only know three other kids whose parents aren't."

She lives with her father, near Falls Church. Leslie, her older sister, lives with her mother; the two go back and forth. There is also a younger brother. "They're just ordinary folks. Nothing unusual. Except I love them a lot."

Every Saturday morning, a 7:20, Mr. Cohen, a lawyer, drives his daughter to Fairfax Ice Arena. Skating is what Elise Cohen cares most about right now. She wants to make the Olympics.

"I might be more mature than other kids. Maturity's a funny thing at this age. My parents always encouraged me to be more aggresive, speak out. I think it's boring being in eighth grade. You don't have a title - like freshman or sophomore."

Last Christmas, Elise's school put up a tree in the office for the holidays. Elise told Margery Edson, the principal, she wanted a menorah for Hanukah. She got it.

"Well, I had one last year." She is talking of a man. "It lasted almost seven months to the day. He said, 'I just don't think it's working out.' He was about to transfer to another school and I think he wanted his freedom. But he couldn't tell me that."

She says this fighting with papers on a table in front of her. She concentrates on aligning them perfectly, like a deck of cards. Then, "I mean, we had problems. But everybody does."

Sometimes it's hard to share deep feelings with her mom. "It's not like I can't talk to her. She's very open and sweet. She's never ridiculed me about anything. It's not easy being a parent. I feel sorry for them. I really do. I know I wouldn't want to be one now."

Awhile ago Elise Cohen went to Israel. She has a lot of memories, including the time "we went into his Arab market and some man offered my dad 200 camels for me."

She says it half giggling, a tiny hand covering my mouth, "I think my dad was embarrassed. I wasn't." 'Kids Cover When They're Bored.'

Amy White turned 14 this last winter. Her father is an oboist with the National Symphony, her mom gives voice lessons. She has wire rims, waterfalls of hair, the frankness of somebody who hasn't yet needed to be anything else. She also has clear-painted nails. "This is the first time I've painted them," she says. "Actually, I hate painted nails."

Sometimes, she gets bored. "I think a lot of kids cover when they're bored," she says, not fully explaining. "I mean, to their parents."

Marijuana is an overblown subject. "I don't think it's that bad if you're not dependent. There are some kids who are, of course, and they're called heads."

On sex, "All the teachers know if you know. I learned about it from being curious." She says there's a lot of it going around. She says this and laughs.

She figures at 14 you should be pretty grown up. "When I was 8, I was a real brat. I remember that. I used to be a pig with the cats. I don't mean this snobby like, but a lot of my friends are like 11 mentally. On the whole, I don't do anything disruptive."

She's interested in the arts, especially poetry. She used to read e.e. cummings. She's probably outgrown him, she thinks. "I never write rhymed verse. My mom is one of the only persons alive who reads my poems. I showed the first one to her and she liked it so much she made me make a copy of it so she could put it up in the bathroom and look at it every morning.

Music is also nice. "I really like music and making it up. It makes me cool off, feel better. I get a lot of feelings out of it."

Her last crush was last year, she says. It lasted six months. "Okay, I love him. We were pretty good friends. We still talk a lot. He lives in Woodbridge now. On weekends he works in a Hot Shoppe. We used to bike down to the museums in D.C. I showed him "To Fly."

There was this one boy, a senior, who wanted to take her out. "Mom wanted me to go in a group. I kind of see her point."

The thing she wants to avoid most is monotony. "If I knew my life was going to turn out like some growups I know, I'd put a gun to my head right now. But I don't think it will." 'Kids Our Age Go to Malls A Lot.'

She's 14. She's in a velour sweater, earth shoes, woolen argyle socks. Her jeans are rolled at the cuff. Clear polish on the nails. She say she was named after the Marshes of Glynn in Georgia.

Glynn Garner sits spraddle-legged in the principal's office at Leland Junior High in Chevy Chase (the principal has vacated), books under her arm, flute case at her feet. Her books are covered with brown paper. There is doodling on the paper. In the hall: the clang of metal lockers. Noontime.

"There's a dance in the gym tonight," she says "This'll be the best band yet - Fancy Colors Most bands at teen dances just play boogie-oogie-oogie music. If you know what I mean."

She has an arsenal of moves: biting nails, grabbing at her shoe, forking a hand through her hair. Sometimes her finger hangs at her eye, other times inside her lip. She has an expansion ladylike wrist-watch and a Hey I-know-the-score grin. I usually comes out sideways.

The dances work like this: At 7:30 you get checked in by Mr. Mullaney. Once you're in, you're in. (This is to guard against entry of pot)."It's all dark inside. Chairs are lined against the walls. Some kids go up to the top of the bleachers and make out." Once, she says, Mr. Mullaney took a picture of some make-out artists and put it in the yearbook. That gassed everybody.

One of her brothers, probably Patrick, will escort her to the dance. Partick goes to "BCC" (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). It's embarrassing to have your brother walk you to a dance, but what can you do? There are some creeps around, she admits. Anyway, at the gym door her boyfriend will be waiting

"If you're lucky, your boyfriend lives near you and you can make out going home. Sometimes after a basketball game, kids go to McDonald's. They sit in booths and throw ice at each other. I don't know anybody who goes out on dates. Okay, like maybe sometimes you'll meet somebody at the mall. Kids our age go to malls a lot. I like going to White Flint best. I hate Montgomery Mall".

She likes these things religion, flute (she made advanced band) bike riding on weekends with her pal, Penelope. "Religion is a sign of being civilized". "She's an Episcoplian.

Her dad is in computer work - scientific time sharing, though don't ask what this is. Her mom is a calligraper.

On sex, she says (curling her hair with a finger) that some girls do it in the seventh. They go out with a ninth grader and if they don't go all the way the first time, they're out. Sideways grin: "It's very good to have big ears and small eyes."

Not long ago she had a sip of her mother's Bloody Mary. "I thought it was gross." She's tired some wine, too. That's about all. "There are some kids I've heard about who just live to go out and get drunk".

Everybody was "just shocked" about her and her boyfriend. "He's a boy scout. Even his troop leader likes me". (This is a joke). Actually, it could be a serious relationship.

How long have they been going out?

"Oh, since Thursday." 'You Keep Waiting For Something Exciting.'

His middle names is Riccardo. He's not sure if it's Spanish. All the guys call him "Rick". He can look at your squint-eyed, though mostly he doesn't look at you at all. His left arm is resting on the tabletop in front of him. He motions with it, wipes his face with it. He is probably wishing he were out of here.

And out on the basketball court. He's crazy for the Bullets. Big E and Wes. Someday he's going to play for the Bullets. He's counting on it. "That's why I hustle now and go after the ball a lot."

Anthony Lipford is 12, in the seventh. He has one sister, three brothers. His father is a painter. He lives on Morris Place NE.

He has shown up today in Pro Keds (green) and a jacket with epaule's on

"When they come around me with it, I just go somewhere else because I don't like the smell of it anyway."

Sometimes he wishes he had more money. He'd like to buy his parents some stuff. He'd get his dad a brandnew fishing pole, his brother a guitar. Last summer he ahd his dad went fishing a few times. Didn't catch much. Still had a good time, "talking and all".

He doesn't think much about the future, except as basketball figures in it. "I don't have a lot of plans. Too many grownups have plans and they don't work out."

It's sad when you hear adults fighting, he thinks. Maybe they're bored. He doesn't know. He does know he gets bored sometimes. You come the shoulders. His Afro hair is closecropped. There is a split in his front teeth. He looks both chunky and strong.

"I don't think about girls that much," he says, little nervous. "Since I'm into basketball, I just keep my mind on that. Girls are a bit cracked anyway."

Sometimes he watches the news. Actually, his teacher makes him. "We have to put it in outline form. It's just people fighting.

Out on the playground, it's tough. Some kids want to push you around. There are those who lean against the building and talk about girls, and there are those who lean against the building and talk about basketball. When the teacher comes, you scatter. Sometimes, there's pot around home from school, get something to eat, flip on the tube. "You keep waiting for something exciting."

He says it not with any sense of sadness, that's just the way it is. 'There's a Pressure to Keep Up. You Know?'

In her whole life, Sarah Szanton has only danced with two boys taller than she is. "And I really couldn't tell you if the boy asks first, because if I want to dance with a boy and he doesn't absolutely despise me, I'll go up and ask him."

Here's what happened last weekend. Friday: nothing. Saturday: worked on a school play. At 4:30, came home and, "as mom puts it, contemplated my navel". At 7:30, went baby-sitting. At midnight, came home and talked to some of her parents' friends who were over for a party. Sunday, got up really late. "Oh, homework, homework."

Apropos of nothing: "I forget everything. And I'm hard to understand. Sometimes I think nobody understands me."

She is 13 and sleepy-lidded. She has pierced ears and brown knee socks. Her dark hair musses prettily about her face. She's in seventh at Sidwell Friends.

She is sitting in bleachers in sunshine overlooking the school track. As she talks, she tosses a muddy tennis ball for the coach's dog to retrieve. (This way, she doesn't have to look up). At first, she says she doesn't want her last name in the paper. Later, she says it's okay.

One thing to know, Sarah says: Kids her age don't like to go on real boy-girl dates. "Not because it's wrong. It would be . . . embarrassing." Generally, she and a gang of friends will go to the Uptown THeater. Then a restaurant. "Everyone pays. It's an unwritten rule".

Sometimes she walks home from school with Jeff and Jay, two friends. At home, while she's having her snack, she turns on Mary Tyler Moore. "I always think, "Oh, wow, that's me.'"

Secret: "I steal acting teachniques from her".

Her brother Andrew, "He wants me to be tough. But Nathan, if he's arguing with Mom and starts to get tears in his eye, I'll just started crying first. Sometimes I get depressed and I won't really start crying, just sort of choking in my voice. One time I was depressed and my brother came in and asked me to quiz him on his French lessons and all of a sudden started this terrible crying. It was just the next thing. Mom say it'll pass".

Her dad works in the government OMB. Very smart. "He's a policy analyst. Someday, he's going to analyze himself right out of a job". Her mom is finishing a PhD in infant development. "She makes films about babies and takes notes on them."

The person she probably confides in most is Carol. Carol is her grandmother. She is 71, Sarah says.She understands her.

"She doesn't yell, I mean, she gets angry and all . . . it's just that she's more discreet. I think there's a special relationship between kids and their granparents. It's different than what you have with your parents. More open."

She changed "a ton" over the summer she thinks. Camp, up in Maine, had a lot to do with it. What boys want at this age, she's pretty sure, "is the feminine type who can still play sports." Yes, that's it. A dazzling grin.

Sarah Szanton is also a scholar. Last month she won a $1,000 National Merit Scholarship. She's the only teen-ager in the District of Columbia to be so honored this year. "My brothers are real smart," she sighs. "There's a pressure to keep up. You know?