The rubber hand is flopped up on the table like a fish. It is life-sized and pink, and today it is getting a new set of false nails.

Lorraine Pelletier, of Burke, Va., is snipping along the cuticle of this docile hand. She is halfway through a six-week course at the Fame School of Nail Design in Rockville -- the only school in the Washington region devoted totally to the grooming of nails -- and she knows she will never again see a customer so compliant and nonjudgmental.

"She never yells," said Pelletier, dabbing at a rubber finger with a cotton ball. "I can hurt her, and she doesn't care."

At the Fame School, which opened last fall, the students are on the cutting edge of a fashionable trend in nail care. With their bottles of neon-pink polish and their pumice stones, the 40 students enrolled in each course are finding out about "nail diseases and disorders." They are learning to paint palm trees and bunny rabbits on three-inch talons. They already know that a corn can be a forbidding thing.

But please, don't think of them as budding manicurists: These are tomorrow's nail technicians.

"We don't like the word 'manicurist' anymore," said Sue Daigneault, an owner of the school. "It's so much more than that."

Yes, it's gel systems and silk wraps, paraffin treatments and acrylic tips. It's learning to be comfortable while holding a stranger's hand for 30 minutes, and gathering the fortitude to tackle someone else's long-neglected feet.

"When a person starts to take off his shoes," said Jean Motlow, with a small shudder, "you don't know what's up under there."

Perhaps it's not always a pretty job, but in these hectic days, it's increasingly a job somebody else has to do. Long considered a luxury, a once-in-a-blue-moon extravagance, professional manicures have become routine for many women -- and men -- during the past couple of years, said Daigneault, who has a background in cosmetology.

"It's boring. It's time-consuming," she said. "People don't want to clean their own houses anymore, either. And it feels good to have somebody else do it . . . .

"The trend of the '90s," she said, "is that people are out in the world more, and they're aware of their hands as part of their total appearance package."

The result of all this fresh vanity is an explosion of nail salons across the country, with so many opening in the Washington area that "salon owners drive me crazy," she said. "We have no trouble placing people. I've got a whole book full of jobs."

Most of Fame's students, however, dream of working for themselves. For a $985 fee, they attend 120 hours of classes -- their textbook "The Art and Science of Manicuring," their goal to pass the state exams required to receive a license in Maryland. Ninety-eight percent of them are women, usually the sort who has enjoyed painting her own nails since childhood. The average student is in her late twenties or early thirties, a secretary or a waitress, who "comes to the realization, 'Hey, I'm tired of this, I want more freedom,' " Daigneault said.

Money is a tempting factor. A starting manicurist can make $20,000 to $25,000 a year, she said -- not bad for someone who might have dropped out of high school or never earned more than a minimum wage.

Mary Reeve, 32, works as a cashier while enrolled at Fame, but she can already envision herself as the owner of a nail salon in some sunny Florida town.

"Oh yeah, I want to open shop and paint nails on the beach," she said. "I think it's a pleasant thing. It's relaxing; it's up. You're doing something to beautify life."

There is also the artistic angle. Motlow, who lives in Silver Spring and works for Federal Express, said she hopes to become known for her creative flourishes. She extended an index finger with a long squarish nail, painted frosty white and studded with blue rhinestones arranged in a diamond pattern.

"I want a trademark," she said, fanning out her nails and examining them. "Actually, I want to work with stones. When a person leaves my place, I want other people to say, 'She's been to Jean.' "