When Felipe Mesa was in military school two years ago, "everyone was gung ho. Everyone wanted to torture the Commies, and so did I."

No more. Mesa is older (in 11th grade) and, he said, wiser.

"Now it's like the Russians are more like us," said Mesa, a student at Banneker High School in Northwest Washington. "They're just as scared as we are."

Score one for Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost.

Around the Washington area this week, in shopping malls and schools, in homes in the District and the suburbs, people who saw the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting only through newspapers, television and tangled traffic were nonetheless conducting their own summits.

In dining room conversations and corner store chats, people are trading impressions of the unusual Soviet leader and predictions about the fate of the world.

At Banneker, the District's academic high school, the summit provoked the latest in a series of heated face-offs between Robert Rogers and Todd Goren, the Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan of the junior class, in temperament if not in doctrine.

"Gorbachev is a more European, more 20th century leader," Rogers said. "There's great promise in the Soviet Union."

"They're still ducking human rights," Goren said. "Glasnost is PR. The change is in the leader, not the government."

Challenged to defend the Soviets even in the face of last weekend's beating of demonstrators on a Moscow street, Rogers said, "Demonstrators need to be beaten and punished when they break the law."

The class erupted in jeers and looked to Goren for a quick retort.

Goren simply moaned and rolled his eyes.

While many of the Banneker students seemed to be studying news reports of the summit, plenty of people have paid only casual attention to the diplomatic negotiations in their own city.

"I work six days a week, till 9:30, and I have not been able to follow it," said Eleanor Bertsch, who owns the Olive Branch, a Christian bookstore in Rockville.

"I just wonder how substantial it all is really. I still kind of question the Soviets. But I would like to think the best."

"I heard something about it, but I don't like politicians," said Maria Bacallao, a housewife in the Petworth section of Northwest Washington. "They can talk and do whatever, but we still live our lives."

But most of the several dozen people interviewed for this article had formed new and generally favorable, if still cautious, attitudes toward Gorbachev and the Soviets this week.

Cedric Whitaker, a grocery clerk who lives in Deanwood in Northeast Washington, said Gorbachev "seems more trustworthy than the ones before him. I'd like to know more about him. But I still have reservations because he's a Russian."

"The Soviets seem a lot more serious than the Americans," said Angela Alsobrook, an 11th grader. "Reagan seems to be joking about the whole thing."

Gorbachev's constant presence on American TV and his unusual appearance in a television interview made many people suspicious.

"The Soviet Union is still the Soviet Union," said George Kelly, a Banneker junior. "The only thing that's changed is how they present themselves to us in the '80s, the decade of facile doubletalk."

Kelly was the only member of his class to raise his hand when asked whether there is a good possibility of a nuclear war in his lifetime. Nearly all his classmates believe that U.S. and Soviet leaders understand that no one can win a nuclear war. But Kelly dismissed that reasoning.

"The weapons are there," he said. "My life expectancy is supposed to be to my mid-seventies. Since there hasn't been a nuclear weapon used in 43 years, I figure the odds are pretty much against not having another one in my lifetime."

Such terrifying thoughts led Jeanne Andrews of Bethesda to sit down with her 9-year-old son this week to ask him to write a letter to Gorbachev, inviting the general secretary to his school.

"But he had been watching something on TV about human rights and he said, 'Mom, I'm not going to invite him if he keeps families separated,' " Andrews said.

She bought a greeting card yesterday for her son, who will make his first confession in church next week. "The peace in one's heart is a small start for peace on earth," the card said.

"I don't know about Gorbachev," said Andrews, a mother of four. "I saw these Christians on TV who came from Russia, and they said you really can't trust the man. But wouldn't it be wonderful if you could?"

At International House, an Indian grocery in Rockville, owner Hira Chand said he learned in his native Burma not to trust the Russians.

"But some agreement is better than no agreement," he said, "even if they try to break the agreement."

Chand was amused by the irony of Ronald Reagan, the man who called the Soviet Union the "evil empire," sitting down to seek peace with Gorbachev.

"I suppose it's not very surprising that a man leaving office wants to show people that he can be peaceful," the shopkeeper said. "After all, he doesn't have a third term to run for."

Bill Payne, a 30-year-old grocery clerk from Falls Church, saw the summit as Reagan's attempt to change history's view of his presidency.

"I honestly think this is something for Reagan, to set him in history, like Carter wanted to get the hostages out of Iran before his presidency was over," Payne said.

As for Gorbachev, he said, "I think he's a good con man. I'm irritated because I think we're all being snowed. We're playing pianos, 'Moscow Nights,' so everybody cries. There's not a dry eye in the place. Big deal. Really. Big deal."

But John Wentworth, an editor who lives in Adams-Morgan, credited Gorbachev with generating the summit. "It's wonderful how Gorbachev flushed Reagan out of hiding," he said. "I suppose we are a modicum safer now. But the only way you could truly reduce arms is to legislate all profits out of war contracts."

Adults and teen-agers alike spoke of the deep mistrust of Soviets that has long been engrained in American society.

Margaret Logan, 66, one of a group of women from the Barney Senior Center shopping at the Rhode Island Avenue Shopping Center in Northeast, remembered growing up with the belief that the Soviet Union was all bad. She has changed her mind.

Gorbachev "is a younger man. A lot of things are going to change in Russia," she said. Soviet children "want the same things my grandchildren want. They want an education. They want to live good."

Logan was especially struck by Gorbachev's appearance at Tuesday night's state dinner at the White House. "I liked Gorbachev when he didn't change and put on a bow tie like everybody wanted him to," she said. Gorbachev wore a business suit. Reagan wore a tuxedo.

Despite reservations, there was a general willingness to consider the Soviets anew, to open a window to peace.

"The revealing thing for me was how the Soviet Embassy took in those children who came by with flowers, and the White House wouldn't let them in and somebody tossed out the roses," said Patrick Dwyer, owner of Patrick's Good Food in Adams-Morgan. "That tells you something about how insensitive bureaucracy can be; what we have to deal with to get somewhere on this."

"You need to start some place," said Ari Rosner, a Banneker student. "A lot of Americans think Russians are evil, subhuman beings who walk around like robots. And it is kind of surprising that Reagan's involved in striving toward peace. But if you're too skeptical, they'll never get anything done."