In many ways, it was just what you always wished school could be.

Courses included such subjects as "Fantasy," "Arts and Ethics," "Popular Rhythms" and "Poetic Expression." Discussions were lively and challenging. And the teachers, said 14-year-old Brenda Mezick of Poolesville, were "the most intellectually stimulating people I have ever known."

Generally, the fledgling Summer Center for the Humanities, held last month at the University of Maryland in College Park, got good marks from the 150 gifted and talented junior high school students who attended the two-week session of courses and activities.

According to James Hassan, the center's director, the program was "a definite success."

The center was one of 12 for gifted students held across Maryland this summer and sponsored by the Maryland State Department of Education. While other centers focus on such areas as the performing arts and sciences, this was the first year a center focused on the humanities.

The humanities center's staff chose students from across Maryland on the basis of grades, test scores, school activities and teacher recommendations.

The center's teachers gained praise from many students. "The teachers in this program go into more depth than at school," said Marcia Richards, who will be in ninth grade at Samuel Ogle Junior High in Bowie. At her school, she said, "teachers don't expand on every idea you have."

"The classes were freer than in school," said Valerie Brown, a 12-year-old ninth grader from Takoma Park. "There was less pressure to do the work, but people did it anyway."

Others suffered from a common student problem, explained 13-year-old Stephanie Blank, who will be in ninth grade at Wootton High School in Potomac: "There was so much homework but not enough time."

For some students, courses served as ways to look into future careers. Barron Stroud, a classmate of Blanks's at Wootton, said his "Government and the News Media" class inspired him to begin thinking about a career as a newspaper reporter.

Brenda Mezick, who will be in ninth grade at Poolesville Junior-Senior High School, took "Oral Interpretation," in which students read and acted out stories. Mezick said, "I'm interested in plays, and I think oral interpretation will help when I audition for parts."

While the daytime sessions of classes generally were praised, many students said they were dissatisfied with the center's mandatory evening activities. Offerings ranged from a film short titled "The True Art of Lasagne" -- in sign language -- to Oriental music and evenings of mini-seminars.

Stacey Goldberg of Olney, who will be a ninth grader at Sherwood High School, said she hoped the center would get tips from the evaluation forms the students filled out and that it would in the future allow students more free time.

Noting that this was the humanities center's first year, 12-year-old Dana Shoenberg, who will be an eighth grader at Argyle Junior High in Silver Spring, predicted, "The program is going to benefit from experience."

Stephanie Blank and Valerie Brown, who took a course in human development, compared the first year of the center to a parent's first year w with a child. Parents, they said, are inexperienced -- but usually learn with time.

Sharon Hullihen, the center's assistant director, said most of the planning time for this first year was spent on daytime classes. She added that mandatory evening activities were the best way to organize and keep track of the 150 students on the sprawling campus.

Some students housed at the humanities center went to classes at Goddard Space Flight Center. Competition was particularly tight for this program -- of the approximately 1,000 students who applied, only 22 were accepted.

A guidance counselor's recommendation helped Ernest Post secure one of the 22 coveted spots. A 13-year-old tenth grader at Kennedy High School in Montgomery County, Post owns a computer and launches rockets in his back yard. He took courses in astronomy and in the computer language, Fortran.

David Burnick of Bowie, 14, also attended the Goddard center. This fall, David will enter a special program at Roosevelt High School for students interested in science and technology.

Students receive no academic credit for the program, for which each paid $155, but many acknowledge that the fact they attended the session will be a plus on their school records.

The state education department has sponsored such centers for gifted students since 1970. From 1970 to 1975, federal, state and local governments paid for the centers. Since 1975, the state has picked up the tab.