If some of Mark Coates's young artists had prevailed, fellow students at Mount Hebron High School would be munching their Nutty Buddies and bologna sandwiches amid surreal scenes of food falling through the air in upside-down rooms or of watery, fish-filled classrooms.

Coates's art students eventually settled on a less daring topic for a mural in the school cafeteria: scenes from high school life. The choice didn't seem to hurt their creativity. While there are no clocks melting off tables, there is a yellow-maned, helmeted viking who relaxes next to a juke box and shows up at the school prom in a spiffy black tux.

As part of an artist-in-residence project at the school, the students, guided by Baltimore artist and teacher Rodney Cook, spent almost three weeks and $200 worth of acrylic paints on the 50-foot-long mural. The students worked before and after school, juggling sports practices, prom preparations and homework to finish the mural before its unveiling last Friday.

A core group of about six students did much of the painting.

"They are so energetic, they are so enthusiastic, it really comes out in the mural," said Cook, a Maryland Art Institute instructor whose credits include the mural in the Motor Vehicle Administration building at the Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore.

"These kids are like sponges," Cook said. "They learn very rapidly."

While it doesn't threaten the reputation of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, the mural has a certain funky charm. Everyday scenes from high school life -- a football game, a classroom lesson, the prom -- flow into one another, unified by an ever-present viking, the school's symbol.

Mount Hebron students seem to like it.

"It's neat. It's different," freshman Lori Palmer said.

"You can't find the {wall} clock anymore. Besides that, it's good," said Moss Turner, another freshman.

Despite Cook's credentials, students challenged his suggestions at first. They wanted to do things their way. Then they discovered the difficulties posed by a wall-sized mural. Like translating 5 1/2-inch pencil sketches into a 5 1/2-foot-high painting and mixing just the right colors to give depth to the vignettes.

"At first, we said, 'Sure, Rodney, sure Rodney' " in response to Cook's suggestions, said Keith Wall, one of the primary mural painters. "At the end, we were like 'Rodney, how do you do this?' " said Wall, who will enter Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., in September.

"It's much more difficult than we ever thought," said Coates, who helped his students during the project's early, brainstorming phase. That's when the students came up with the idea of an upside down cafeteria where food falls through the air and of an imitation of a Henri Rousseau painting featuring high school students -- instead of animals -- in the jungle.

The mural is one of 15 artist-in-residence projects funded by the Howard County Arts Council and the Evening Rotary of Columbia. Through the program, mimes, sculptors, actors and painters are teaching in county schools this spring.