When Laura Craig and three other students were asked to sit at the head table at the National Peace Essay Contest awards banquet recently, they were initially perplexed.

"We knew they wouldn't be so obvious that they'd put the three winners at the head table, and pick someone who hadn't won to be up there, too," Craig said yesterday. But Craig, 17, forgot her worries when she fell into conversation with her dinner partner, Milan Svec, a former Czechoslovakian diplomat who received political asylum in the United States in 1985.

As the winners were announced, beginning with third place, the names called belonged to students who sat at other tables in the National Press Club.

"So when they came to first place, I wasn't expecting anything," said Craig, who just graduated from Langley High School in McLean last month. "It was an extremely pleasant surprise."

Craig, who found out later she had been seated at the head table because "they had wanted gregarious people," won the $10,000 first prize for an essay on "The Marshall Plan: An Innovative Peace." She wrote that the American effort to rebuild Europe after World War II succeeded because it was practical,even if it wasn't perfect.

Craig is the second Langley student in two years to win the national contest, which is sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace, a federally financed institution that studies international conflicts and their resolution.

The contest is open to all high school students in the country, and Craig was chosen from among 51 finalists who came to Washington this week.

The daughter of a Canadian diplomat, Craig's interests are about as eclectic as the places she's lived. Born in Belgium, she has grown up in cities as diverse as Buffalo, Prague, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Washington, where she has spent her high school years.

At Langley, both Craig and last year's winner, Susanna Trnka, were enrolled in a humanities curriculum in which teachers team up to teach two courses as one unit. For example, juniors take both American literature and advanced-placement American history courses combined in one, and seniors take British literature and goverment courses taught together.

"What made it interesting was that, for example, you wouldn't do English at 9, then automatically do government at 10," Craig said. "Instead, you might spend two weeks reading novels, then three weeks on government."

She remembers when the class read Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" aloud together, and how reading black poets such as Langston Hughes would generate discussions about civil rights.

Although Craig won the peace essay contest, and a year ago was nominated from Langley as one of three students for a National Council of Teachers of English award, writing about the humanities is not all she does.

She leaves for Belgium this weekend for a month of intensive language study, then will bicycle through Brittany, France, and climb mountains in the Alps before returning to Yale for her freshman year.

"I like too many things," she said. "I played the piano for 10 years, I love to dance, I'm getting into karate, I'm beginning to sing, and I love the outdoors."