He's fat, say his followers, and lazy and grouchy: so what else could you ask of a school mascot?

In the past year, Springfield's Garfield Elementary School in Fairfax County has been taken over by Garfield the Cat, the frowziest feline ever to make the bestseller lists.

Stuffed Garfields hold court in the school office and hold seats in classrooms at recess. Almost all the students have Garfield T-shirts, as do teachers and staff, or wear Garfield buttons.

The sounds of Garfield style felinaphilia are heard on the playground ("Prepare to die!" shouts a jungle-gym mountaineer). Garfield pencils, erasers, books, calendars, postcards and cutouts are pocketed, pinned and posted throughout the building. There's even one stuffed Odie, Garfield's long-suffering but undaunted puppy.

"We tend to keep things very low-key around here," says principal Edwin Grady, keeping a straight face over his green Garfield "Have a nice day" button.

A few months ago, school administrators put the craze to work. Dozens of students wrote letters, Garfield short stories and "catterol" verse to Garfield creator Jim Davis. One of the most inspired, by 11-year-old Kelli Gongloff, warns, "His favorite food's lasagna, To get it he'll con ya."

The letters, delivered to United Features Syndicate in New York, last month paid off in a note from Davis, enclosing three Garfield books and an autographed (and paw-printed) drawing of Garfield Astaire with cane and straw boater inscribed "To Garfield Elementary: Nice Name!"

"This has worked to bring everybody together," says Grady. "It's hard to reach all the way from age 4 to age 12--what interests a kindergarten student may not mean anything to a sixth-grader. But there are enough different Garfield spinoffs to appeal to all the kids."

The chubby, me-first Garfield is an appropriate symbol for the junk food era -- more so than President Garfield. His seven months in office seem faint indeed to the children of the cartoon age at his namesake school.

With his mischievous ways and impulsive, hot-and-cold affections, Garfield the cat is a tiger-striped and articulate human child, acting out fantasies of anti-parental rebellion (without punishment), pranks and second helpings.

"He's cute!" says Jennifer Bowling, 10. "Adorable and famous!" adds Carleen Kirk, also 10.

"He plays very nasty tricks," says spectacled, carrot-headed Kerry Smith with a melodramatic leer.

"At last," rhapsodizes Danielle Williams, "I've met someone who loves lasagna as much as I do!"

"He has all my habits," says student government leader Christine Hansen. "He's lazy, loves to eat, and he protects what is his."

"He can do things that would get him in trouble, but he doesn't get caught," says 11-year-old James Brodsky. "He sort of reminds me of me sometimes."

"I can second that," his father Lewis, who delivered the fan mail to New York, says fervently.

Although principal Grady predicts the Garfield fad will be stronger next year, there are rivals. Better phone home, Fat Cat. According to teacher Mary Sue Whitt, her kindergarten pupils are still hooked on lumpy but un-grumpy E.T. "Now if Garfield were in the movies . . . ," Whitt suggests.

As Garfield would say, prepare to die.