Phantoms from my childhood have been haunting me lately, sad little shades who touched the fringes of my life.

One was a boy who would appear now and then in our neighborhood, nobody knew from where. A tall, stringbean boy with ragged clothes way too small, he always rode the same small, beat-up tricycle (not a bicycle), his knees sticking way out like some strange frog. He was probably about 16, a lot older than the rest of us. His name was Mickey, but half taunting, half in jest we all called him "Ma-Hickey."

"Hi, Ma-Hickey," sometimes said with a slap on his back. He would always respond with a grin, glad of the attention.

We knew nothing about him, not his full name, nor his parents, and we didn't much care. We only knew that we could tease him and get away with it.

He was "teched" -- "not right in the head." The word retarded was not in our vocabulary. And if someone pulled him off his tricycle and hid it he'd cry, snuffling loudly and wiping at his eyes and nose. Some of the kids thought this was very funny and they'd roll it back and forth, watching him blubber. A few with consciences would eventually retrieve it and he'd rub his eyes and grin, tears and dirt smearing his face.

It's a sure bet he never went to school nor did much else. His life revolved around that trike, and I can see him still, a ridiculous and pitiful figure pedaling up the block into nothingness.

The other phantom was a dark-haired chunky girl with "funny eyes" we'd see sitting on her front porch. If we stopped to look at her -- look, not talk -- her mother would appear immediately and lead her inside. We all knew why; the girl was a "Mongolian Idiot."

Eventually all of us on the block grew up and went away. It would be comforting to hope that "Ma-Hickey" and the girl got "cured," which of course they didn't. I don't know what happened to them.

It is safe to say they weren't put to death as the mentally retarded were in Nazi Germany. And they weren't tried as witches as some retarded persons were during the Salem Witch Trials. Nor were they worshipped "touched by The Divine," as in some societies. Probably they ended up warehoused as was the custom of the day.

Most of us past 30 probably have a memory of similar "strange children" in our lives. But rarely do we recall things we did; school, movies on a Saturday afternoon, circuses, ballets, picnics in the park -- the mundane, sometimes not so mundane, focal points of everyday life where we see them today.

In 1950, parents who could stand it no longer banded together on behalf of their children and formed The National Association for Retarded Children, now called Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC). That significant founding plus the influence of families like the Kennedys and the Humphreys began an earnest pummeling on centuries of superstition and ignorance.

Parents and teachers "ahead of their time" had been teaching retarded youngsters for years and knew their capabilities. But there was no overall commitment to the idea of education for the mentally handicapped.

Then in 1975 a federal law (PL 94-142), passed by Congress and signed by the president, declared that every child has a right to a public school education no matter the handicap.

Probably no one can truly comprehend the meaning of this law without visiting a classroom where it is implemented. I am aware, for example, of a classroom where the seven students were born with Down's Syndrome (my phantom of the porch). They are reading, writing, learning arithmetic -- very basic but arithmetic, nevertheless, including fractions. They have spelling tests weekly and are expected to do their homework. They go to the library and help in the cafeteria. They've had trips to the White House, Museum of National History and the Kennedy Center.

With all the school experience of normal children, they've thrived, matured and learned to function as full human beings. And someday they will hold jobs, not super-grade jobs, but jobs.

And yes, part of their education like speech pathologists, teachers' aides, physical therapists have come from federal funds. And yes, taxpayers are footing the bill and it's not cheap.

President Reagan is very personable, witty and articulate and certainly a man of considerable courage. He is also a conjurer up of phantoms.

The president has asked for a 20 percent cut in federal funding for education and advocating block grants to states to spend as they wish. In effect, he is gutting PL 94-142. Without federal follow through, monies will not necessarily be used to fund the programs for which they were intended.

Without funding to back up PL 94-142, states can make any excuse to avoid educating the handicapped. Special teachers, therapists, none need be hired.

There are still those out there who consider it a waste trying to educate a "retard," who believe that "Mongolian Idiots" have to wear diapers all their lives.

This philosophy is responsible for tragic lists of individuals waiting to get into sheltered workshops or group homes, those who might have made it long ago, had they been allowed an education.

PL 94-142 was passed so that handicapped children in every community would be assured that education. The federal government would be there to help these youngsters and their families fight the ignorance and prejudice of centuries. The old "Sorry, there isn't any money for them" wouldn't work any more.

It is no wonder that a faint echo of memory -- the phantoms -- touched me when I read that the president said, ". . . This is only a first step toward returning power to the states and local communities. . . ."

Even as kids on our block long ago, we could see that nobody much cared about the future for "Ma-Hickey" and the girl. We could figure out that "dummies" were good for teasing and interesting to stare at, even if it kind of gave you the creeps. Of course, we were awfully glad that whatever happened to them hadn't happened to us. But we didn't dwell on it much. We were too busy going to school and doing all the things normal kids do.

I'd like to think that Mickey and the girl ended up okay but almost surely they didn't. More likely they wound up just waiting . . . waiting.