The boys of Gonzaga, a private Jesuit boys high school on a small plot of asphalt in the District of Columbia, were ready for their football rivals from Georgetown Preparatory, a Jesuit school on 96 acres in Rockville. Across the overpass on North Capitol Street, they stretched a white sheet with the words, "Welcome to the Real World." And at Gonzaga's wrought-iron gates they hung another message: "This Ain't No Country Club."

Ten blocks from the U.S. Capitol, Gonzaga College High School sits at North Capitol and I streets NW, an unlikely spot for a prestigious boys preparatory school that costs $3,250 a year and draws 716 students from the richest suburbs and poorest ghettoes, 170 of whom are graduating today.

Its red brick bell tower, faded by age and long silent, juts above a neighborhood of littered lots and a few signs of urban renewal. Each day its students pass near a line of homeless men waiting outside the shelter in the basement of the church attached to the school.

"A left turn into nowhere," observed Gonzaga senior Ryan Northrop from Arlington.

But Gonzaga's location is part of its strength. By making students rub shoulders with poverty and confront in the classroom issues that tap-dance on the adolescent mind -- such as defending one's country versus killing other human beings -- the Jesuit and lay teachers force students to explore their moral values and the social consequences of their decisions.

"We want to help break down stereotypes, not reinforce them," said Joe Ciancaglini, the school's admissions director. "We want kids to see the larger world, the larger set of questions . . . . We want to create a context of service for others."

Gonzaga, named for Aloysius Gonzaga, the patron saint of youth, is not the only school in the Washington area where values are rigorously debated. And it has its share of problems.

Jug (Justice Under God, or school detention), is widely attended. Essay homework assignments, from time to time, carry similar answers but different names. Some boys drink too much, and the "Friends of the Arbo" was a popular club this spring among some seniors who traveled on warm afternoons to the National Arboretum to pop a few beers.

Nonetheless, there is a special quality here noticeable to a visitor of several months who has roamed dozens of schools and logged hundreds of classroom hours over the past three years. As public schools confront the question of teaching traditional values and ethics, calling it character education, Gonzaga's philosophy bears examination: To train a boy to be "a man for others."

"It is important to know what is noble and what is base," U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett said in a speech early this spring, calling for public schools to begin teaching traditional values like fairness and integrity. "It is important to know what deserves to be defended, and what deserves to be loved."

His speech, devoid of the traditional rhetoric on academic standards, was a highly unusual speech for the top educator in the country. But for Bennett it was a speech from the heart. He had learned these values at Gonzaga 24 years ago, and Gonzaga, he thought, was a model of a good school.

"You obviously would not want the specific sectarian direction and foundation for all schools," a chain-smoking Bennett, Gonzaga class of '61, said recently in his fourth-floor office at the Department of Education. "But I believe there is a broader consensual morality . . . a shared system of ideas and a sense of community that all can have and should have."

Gonzaga, Bennett said, was a place where "a smart, bratty kid" like himself, whose parents were divorced, learned "the difference between toughness and callousness," how to play by the rules, and what courage and self-discipline were: lessons, he thinks, all students should learn in school.

"If I was to think of the many schools I went to -- grammar school, high school, college, graduate school, law school -- Gonzaga was certainly the most important in forming who I am," Bennett said. Curriculum Confronts Issues

On a typical day this past year, students in Paul Burke's honors English class were asked in an exam: "Do you think Rabbit of John Updike's 'Rabbit Run' was justified in leaving his wife?"

Across the driveway, in another building, Anselma Dolcich, the biology teacher, helped organize a religious retreat program, in which 35 sophomores talk about their fears of expressing feelings to girls.

In a biology laboratory, the Rev. Ray Lelii confronted the issue of evolution that many public schoolteachers now try to avoid. Darwin, he said, was a great man whose critics misunderstood him.

"The whole curriculum is designed to confront and see different values. But I never felt threatened," said Tom Turbyville, who as an Episcopalian is one of the non-Catholics who make up about 20 percent of Gonzaga's enrollment. Turbyville, now with his left ear pierced, was nervous when he arrived at Gonzaga from a Swiss boarding school that was very open and easygoing.

"They are totally different in terms of academic pressures, but in terms of values they are very similar," he said of the two schools. "They are both very open-minded . . . . The teachers may tell you what they think, but they never chastise any point of view."

This emphasis on debating values has produced alumni on both ends of the ideological spectrum, from White House communications director Patrick Buchanan to Maryland state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III, the liberal son of civil rights leader Clarence M. Mitchell Jr.

"It was a place where I began to learn there was such a thing as equal justice," Mitchell, Gonzaga class of '57, said of the day both he and a white student served detention for fighting. Mitchell rose every morning at 6 a.m. to catch the train from segregated Baltimore to Union Station in Washington.

Much has changed at Gonzaga since Bennett, Buchanan and Mitchell were boys. Latin is out as a requirement, as are coats and ties. Their Gonzaga was part of the old Catholic Church prior to Vatican II, the historic council held during 1962-65, which moved the Catholic Church from an inward-looking institution to one more involved in social issues outside the church gate.

At the old Gonzaga, most of the boys were the sons of working-class parents and immigrants who wanted their sons to go further in life than they had, to become suburban husbands and fathers working in government service or other respected professions. Today's Gonzaga encourages boys to explore other options as well, including social work with the poor.

From their first days, the boys of Gonzaga are cautioned that they have come there to learn to give. "Nemo dat quod non habet -- You can't give what you don't have," the Rev. Thomas Buckley, an elfin chaplain with berry-bright cheeks, told the freshmen during orientation this year.

Sitting awkwardly in their required shirts with collars and wearing hard-soled shoes, the boys were then shown a film on the Rev. Horace McKenna, the legendary Gonzaga priest who, until his death three years ago, fed and sheltered the poor in Gonzaga's neighborhood.

Several months later, the school's president, the Rev. Bernard Dooley, an urbane and chain-smoking Jesuit of frail proportions, repeated the message at the winter honors convocation: "So I challenge you, the young men of Gonzaga . . . to look into your hearts to find ways that you might grow as men for others." Learning Not to Be Scared

For many, just making the trip to Gonzaga is the first challenge. Most of the white students -- many from Potomac, Chevy Chase, McLean and the wealthy enclaves of Northwest Washington -- have not spent much time in a predominantly black neighborhood before. Many of the blacks, recruited from the neighborhood and making up nearly one-fifth of the school's students, are going to school with white peers for the first time.

But soon into the academic year, the school's location unites the diversified student body and generates a certain ease, if not pride.

One day after school, a lean, intoxicated teen-ager looking for money approached a group of Gonzaga students in the driveway. Gonzaga students ignored him and walked away nonchalantly. "That's all right," he yelled. "Soon as you all get to the subway I'm going to rob you anyway."

"It is now almost a positive experience not to be scared of getting hit," said Matt Ramsey, a square-jawed senior who has been jumped a few times by other passengers as he rode the Metrobus to Gonzaga.

"I look on it this way," added senior Gary Farris from Northeast Washington, whose mother is a District public schoolteacher and who knew whites only from television before going to Gonzaga. "The black students have to adjust to a predominantly white school, but when we walk into the street we're with our people." Then, he notes, the whites have to adjust.

Farris is one of five students who were awarded academic scholarships to top-scoring freshmen upon acceptance at Gonzaga. In the past academic year, 130 students received about $160,000 in financial aid under several scholarship programs.

Graduation standards at Gonzaga are rigorous. "When I first came to Gonzaga I thought I was smarter than everyone else," said Jonathan Kajeckas, editor of the school newspaper, who has taken three years of Latin, two years of Greek and four years of French. "But you get that knocked out of you pretty quickly."

Students must take four years of religion, four years of English, four years of history, a year of mathematics beyond algebra II/trigonometry, three years of a foreign language and two years of a science chosen from biology, chemistry or physics.

In each class, assumptions are challenged. "What will you do if the United States invades El Salvador with its troops?" a robust, bearded German priest asked a combined religion and Spanish class early in February. The priest, who had worked in a Honduran refugee camp and had just talked about what he called a massacre of peasants by the U.S.-aided Honduran military, singled out individual boys to answer.

"In the end I would go for the sole reason that . . . it is what my country has asked me to do," answered John Douglas, a solemn senior from Potomac. "We can't take into consideration that we are killing individual beings. If we did that, then what would have happened in World War II?"

In a junior ethics course examining the Catholic bishops' position on war, teacher John Hoffman told students he disagreed with President Truman's justification for dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

"I would argue for another alternative," said Hoffman. "Demonstrate how destructive the bomb could be and back off the assumption that unconditional surrender was the only answer. Does anyone want to fight me on this?" One Semester in Poverty --

But it is the commmunity work that many Gonzaga teachers feel is the school's most important challenge to their students. To graduate, students must work for a semester in one of five neighborhood poverty centers.

"It is not enough for us to prepare the kids to get out and go to college and get a $40,000-a-year job and live in Chevy Chase," said Dick Christensen, a former Jesuit scholastic who runs Gonzaga's community service program. "We need to help them to see that whatever work they go into, be it law, business or medicine, that their choices reflect a concern for others and a bias toward the poor. Even if they cannot help people, it is our hope that at least they won't hurt them."

Sometimes Gonzaga's influences are immediate. Mark Western, a senior from Chevy Chase, applied to Georgetown University and Emory University because both schools have community service programs similar to the one at Gonzaga. "I consider my work at the McKenna Center to be more important than school," said Western, the son of a doctor.

"You're doing it again?" a red-haired student asked senior Ray Pilkerton as a group of seniors walked back from Sursum Corda, a public housing project a block and a half away, where some Gonzaga students were assigned to tutor the children. "It's a way to give back," Pilkerton, the son of an eye surgeon, who is repeating his community service, said later.

Not all students embrace this social service so readily, however. Required "volunteer" service rankles a number of seniors when they first begin their community work, and some have asked to drive their cars the block and a half to their placement. "To me it's not charity if I'm forced to do it," said senior Eric Seymour, a cross-country runner who tutored poor neighborhood children for his community work.

Many of the students consider themselves politically conservative and find it hard to accept the church's position on such issues as nuclear weapons. "We could spend our time on something better," said Scott DeCain about a unit on nuclear war in his religion class. "At least we should have an impartial teacher."

The Jesuits understand that their lessons are not always going to take, at least in the beginning, and that, in fact, alienation and rebellion can be turned to advantage. For them, the interior struggle is all.

Education secretary Bennett was one of the rebellious ones, a not infrequent visitor to the office of the then-headmaster, the Rev. Anthony McHale. Once, he was caught smoking in the senior lounge; another time, he scored poorly on a chemistry exam. Nonetheless, Bennett was speechless when, in 1961, McHale told him he should go to a prestigious secular college and not a Jesuit college because he was in a rebellious stage. "You'll love it," McHale said then, "but we'll catch up with you."

McHale wrote Bennett four years later, as Bennett was nearing the end of his senior year at Williams College, and asked him to visit. "What's next?" McHale asked a surprised Bennett. Twenty years later, when Bennett was nominated by President Reagan to the Cabinet, Bennett called two people: Father McHale and Joe Kozik, his Gonzaga football coach.

Today, one story stands out in Bennett's memory among the lessons he learned at Gonzaga:

George Schemel, a Jesuit scholastic training to be a priest, walked into Bennett's honors physics class, tossing a steel ball in the air. Bennett recalls the ensuing dialogue:

"If I throw this ball up again," Schemel asked, "how many of you think it will come down again?" "For sure," Bennett said. "Okay, Bennett," Schemel responded, "will you bet me $1,000, absent wire or tricks, that the ball will come down?" "Yes," said Bennett. "A million?" "Yes," Bennett repeated.

"Bennett," Schemel continued, "will you bet your soul it will come down again?" Bennett was finally silenced.

"Schemel said, 'I'm just trying to make a point to you guys about what's important. Pay attention to the laws of physics, but don't forget what matters most.' "

A large number of today's students share Bennett's loyalty to their school. When 20 of them were asked last autumn by an outside evaluation team to rate their school on a scale of 1 to 10, all 20 answered "10." The committee attributed the rare endorsement to the fact that the school administrators had chosen the boys.

So the next day, the committee rounded up its own 20 students. For more than an hour, the evaluators hammered away, asking questions that in other private schools had elicited negative responses. This time 19 of the 20 students gave Gonzaga the highest possible score. The 20th gave it a 9.5. The committee was stunned. Committee members had been evaluating private schools in the Washington area and elsewhere for years, yet they had never come across such unmitigated support.

"We could not shake one of those students loose," said Donald Sudbrink, a member of the Middle States Association accreditation committee. "We asked them all kinds of tough questions that normally get a so-so response. But they wouldn't give. I have visited a number of schools . . . but the response of the students at Gonzaga was unique."

Next: Teaching about nuclear war