Tall, lanky Terry Coullette said he had butterflies in his stomach when he awoke at 6 yesterday morning. He was about to start his first day of high school.

"I said to myself, 'Oh, man, I got to go to a strange place where I don't know nobody,' " he said. "I just felt sick . . . . My sister was teasing me at home, saying, 'Oh, you'll probably be the only person from your old school.' But then I came to school and I saw my friend Gerald, and I felt a lot happier because I saw somebody I knew."

Like Coullette, just about all the 10th graders who started classes yesterday at Spingarn High School on Benning Road in Northeast Washington wandered the wide, dimly lit hallways in search of a familiar face to remind them of the better known junior high school surroundings they left behind. They would now have to cope with the more freewheeling, high-stakes world of high school.

Charles Johnson, late of Eliot Junior High in far Northeast, felt the difference immediately. "Here at Spingarn, they talk to you like you're a normal person," he said. "In junior high school, they talk to you like a kid."

Just for yesterday, though, Johnson, Coullette and the rest of the 10th graders could play the big fish in a big sea because, at Spingarn, as in many of the city high schools, the 10th graders were the only students who were to report to class. The 11th graders start today and the 12th graders arrive Friday.

All elementary schools and junior high schools opened yesterday.

Unlike last year, when hundreds of teachers were laid off or retiring, leaving some classrooms without teachers for the first week of school, teachers and administrators said this year's opening was one of the smoothest in recent memory. It was also the first under the leadership of new superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie.

"The efficient opening of schools today is a sign that teachers, principals and students alike are ready and eager to work for an outstanding year ahead," McKenzie said.

The only confusion at Spingarn was in the students' minds as they tried to remember where the bathrooms were, how the classrooms were numbered, which teacher taught what and which infractions might get them in trouble.

"Now please don't kill off any relatives" just to win an "excused absence from school," warned English teacher Sandra W. Chriss, who had written "Welcome" in big letters across the blackboard in her homeroom.

"I've had students tell me they had to stay out of school because their grandmother died," Chriss said. "Then two weeks later, the student tells me, 'My grandmother is sick.' And I say, 'Oh, the same one that died two weeks ago?'

"Watch out for those little white lies. They catch up with you," Chriss said as a group of students in spanking new sneakers and designer jeans listened intently.

Then Chriss asked all those in her homeroom to introduce themselves and tell a little bit about their interests.

"My name's Thomas Morton," said one youth in blue jeans and plaid shirt.

"Anything else you'd like to tell us about?" Chriss asked. The youth looked down, shook his head negatively and fingered some papers on his desk.

"Tomorrow I want you all to come back being a little more enthusiastic about yourselves," Chriss urged. "You have to learn to sell yourself."

Over the past few years, Spingarn High School, which draws mostly low- to middle-income students from the city's Northeast quadrant, has carried with it the stigma of being one of the lowest achieving, least disciplined schools in the city. A teacher was raped there in 1975, and two students have been shot there since 1977.

Two years ago, Clemmie H. Strayhorn, a tough-minded young former junior high school principal, was sent to Spingarn to straighten things out. Since then, teachers report that discipline and academic standards have improved, though Spingarn students still score behind their counterparts at Woodson and McKinley, the other high schools in Northeast.

"It's an image problem we're battling now," said Strayhorn, who has tried to upgrade the school's business education program and add to what he calls the school's "beautification" by displaying student artworks inside the building and preserving the grass and planting flowers on the school grounds.