At Fairmont Heights Senior High School in Prince George's County students play Ping-Pong in the wrestling room, badminton in the cafeteria, and throw rubber balls to one another in the hallways near the locker room.

The girls' basketball team and the boys' wrestling team work out after school at the Bethune Junior High gym down the street, while the boys' basketball team travels to Cheverly to practice in the Cheverly-Tuxedo Elementary School gym.

The school library could fit into a large family living room, and the biography section might well be squeezed into the kitchen cupboards -- and is in fact stored in a cabinet with doors.

These days, life isn't normal at Fairmont Heights. It hasn't been since the fire gutted the library and part of the gymnasium about three weeks ago, causing nearly $500,000 damage.

"This may sound surprising but I haven't noticed much of a change in the kids," said principal Clarence McDonald. "Sure, I think they miss the library and the gymnasium, but we just haven't been hearing too many complaints."

McDonald said in the first days after the fire, a few students and teachers complained about smoke odors, which still linger in some parts of the building.

"Some people were pretty paranoid," McDonald remembers. "They thought that if somebody struck a match or lit a cigarette, the building might go up in flames."

But now Fairmont Heights is trying to return to normal. A temporary libaray has been set up in an old classroom, and senior high schools from around the county are sending their extra copies of well-known books.

The school infirmary has been moved out of its space next to the fire-damaged library and into the area where home economics and singles living classes once were taught.

The gymnasium, which incurred little damage, was to be reopened this week and the insurance money from the fire will be used to begin rebulding the library.

But other things cannot be as easily repaired, replaced, or relocated -- particularly memorabilia such as the school atheltic trophies and class yearbooks. Principal McDonald estimates that 70 percent of the school athletic trophies, stored in cases between the gym and library, were destroyed.

For Fairmont Heights, which has dominated Maryland high school track for the past decade and has been a strong competitor in other sports, that loss was substantial -- five full trophy cases.

And were it not for the school secretary's offer to donate her collection of school yearbooks, Fairmont Heights might well have lost much of its 30-year history in print and picture.

The library is another story. The old one, with its sooty black walls and sagging ceiling, will eventually be torn down.

Down the hall is the new temporary library, an old classroom containing a few reading tables and about 3,000 books, films and magazines. At most, only about 1,000 additional books can be placed in the library, according to the school librarian. The damaged library had nearly five times as much space and 20,000 items.

The process of accumulating new books has not been easy, even with the help of the 18 other senior high schools in the county.

"Our collection is fairly balanced, but what do you do when you get four or five copies of 'Pride and Prejudice' and very few books for kids who just want to read for recreation," said Patricia Shaughnessy, the school librarian.

Shaughnessy said the students had borrowed regularly from the old library's five racks of popular paperbacks. Now, there is only one rack.

And then there are the periodicals.

"We had copies of Life, Ebony, and the National Geographic that went all the way back into the '40s," Shaughnessy said. "I don't know if we'll ever be able to replace those magazines. We have kids today who don't even remember Vietnam. Microfilm and microfiche won't give them the visual impact of a full-page color picture."

Shaughnessy believes that the loss of the library will hamper students trying to learn research skills.

"It's impossible to get a whole class in to work on a project," she said. "We don't have the space or the books."

The annual black history contest held each February will also suffer. Students who try to answer the daily question about a famous event or personality in black American history will have acess to only a few reference books.

In fact, Shaughnessy said she will take all the questions out of a set of volumes borrowed from the Palmer Park library, "The International Library of Afro-American Life and History."

The temporary closing of the gym also has forced students and teachers to improvise. Instead of playing basketball, the students play checkers, backgammon, cards, badminton, and Ping-Pong wherever they can find space.

Thus badminton is played in the cafeteria, handball in the locker room hallways, and Ping-Pong and checkers in the wrestling and dressing rooms.

"Some of the kids actually like not having to dress out," said physical education teacher Ralph Paden. The more passive kids see this as a nice change of pace, while some of the more aggressive kids are about to go up the walls."

"I'll be glad when the gym opens back up," said 10th grader Gerald Evans. "We don't have enough room to do anything. You can't play basketball and you have to wait all day to get to play one of these games."

Though it will take a few years, Fairmont will get a new library and auditorium as part of a county school board and state capital improvement project. At the same time, the inside of the 30-year-old school will undergo extensive renovation.

While students and teachers get back to work in the damaged building McDonald continues to wonder how the blaze started.The fire department blamed a faulty electrical transformer in a light fixture.

"It's hard to believe that the fixture caused the fire," said McDonald. "The fixture was in the middle of the library ceiling and the most substantial damage occured in two corners of the room. I've also been told by an electrical inspector that the transformer couldn't have been the cause of the fire."

McDonald also denies that school employes knew there was smoke in the building before the fire began as the fire department report alleges.

"To think that any school employe would leave this building knowing that it might be on fire is ridiculous, utterly ridiculous," said McDonald.

Some black county leaders have wondered in private whether the fire was not set, perhaps as an attempt to make the 30-year-old school a prime candidate for closing. Fairmont Heights holds a special place in the black community, since many of the county's black students attended it before integration.

At a school board meeting a few weeks ago, several black parents criticized the board as not giving enough attention to upkeep at predominantly black inner-beltway schools such as Fairmont and Central High.

"I don't think anyone really knows (whether arson caused the fire)," says McDonald. "All I know is that since the fire, this school has gotten a lot of attention from schools maintenance people."