BOSTON -- It was a week of public attention focused on the shouting match between the senators and the sore losers. A full-scale drama on Capitol Hill.

But at the Supreme Court itself, life and law went on as usual. A dispute between students and their school principal came before the eight sitting justices, and not a word was said about the empty seat.

The case on the docket last week began on publication day in May 1983 at Hazelwood East High School near St. Louis. Journalism students picked up the newspaper they worked on and discovered that two articles had been deleted. One was about teen-age pregnancy; the other was about teen-age reaction to divorce. Both had been spiked by the principal.

The principal described the articles as ''inappropriate, personal, sensitive and unsuitable.'' The newspaper, he claimed, was part of a school curriculum. He was its final editor.

But three staff members insisted that they were not just students; they were also journalists. The Spectrum in turn was not just a class project; it was a newspaper. Indeed, the masthead declared a commitment to the First Amendment.

So the question that came before the Supreme Court was this: How much of a right to free speech does a student have? How many rights do we grant high schoolers? How much authority do we offer institutions over the young?

There is no pat formula for balancing these conflicts between students and schools, freedom and authority. In 1969, the heyday of student rights, a majority on the court said that a school couldn't prevent high-school students from wearing black armbands as a form of political expression. But two years ago, the court said that schools could suspend a student for using lewd images in a campaign speech.

Now, listening to the Hazelwood case, justices appeared uncomfortable with both sides. When the school's lawyer said that a principal had the right to control anything published by students, Justice William Brennan objected: ''That really adds up to no First Amendment protection.'' Should a school be able to dictate and censor what students write?

When, in turn, the students' lawyer said that officials could never censor a story just because they didn't like its viewpoint, Justice Antonin Scalia objected. What if the students wrote in favor of marijuana? Didn't the school have some authority, some responsibility, for what was produced in its classroom and published in its building?

The oral argument was lively, but neither justice nor lawyer aired the social concerns that fuel this debate. Below the surface lies a deep uncertainty about how best to prepare our young people for adulthood. How and when should American society turn over the reins and the rights to its young?

There are two ways to think about preparing people for citizenship in a democracy, says Martha Minow, a Harvard Law School professor who prepared a brief in this case. One is to extend ''a learning permit.'' We can let the young, especially teen-agers, exercise their rights under certain restrictions, hoping they'll learn by doing. The other way is to wait until they achieve a ''threshold level of maturity.'' Once they cross it, then we give them rights.

Families use both strategies. So do schools. Institutions that both shelter and shepherd young people need enough authority to teach and guide. They also want students to get behind the wheel of their onrushing adulthood.

In the current climate of concern about crime, drugs and disorder in the schools, the court has come increasingly to support the power of school officials. But these were not adolescents careening down the highway with premature rights to the car. The young editors of the Spectrum did nothing to invoke the principal's heavy-handed censorship. Quite the contrary.

They used the First Amendment well, with great maturity. They did what good journalism is supposed to do: inform its audience on stories crucial to their lives. In this case teen-age pregnancy, divorce.

Indeed, the students have lived up to the principles in the school handbook at Hazelwood. There, it says that a purpose of the paper is to teach students about the values of a free press. On the long trip to the Supreme Court, these citizens-in-training learned something else about a free press. You have to fight for it.