Eileen M. Gardner reported for work at the U.S. Department of Education one recent Monday morning. Eighty hours later she resigned under pressure.

Three days and gone.

Her controversial views -- among them that the handicapped "summoned" their problems -- had liberals and conservatives alike leaping into the froth. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. called Gardner's views on education and the handicapped callous -- "the most incredible thing I've ever read as long as I've been in the U.S. Senate." At the same time William Bennett, the secretary of education who hired her, suddenly found her thoughts "insensitive and repugnant."

Sarah Brady, wife of White House press secretary James Brady, who was seriously injured in the assassination attempt on President Reagan, expressed "indignation." "Crackpot metaphysics," wrote columnist George Will. "Mean-spirited," said a powerful Senate aide.

Meanwhile, back at the Heritage Foundation, the influential conservative think tank from which she came, the object of all this outrage sat demurely at her desk and said, "I never really thought that this would happen, considering that I didn't offer my thoughts with any malicious intent."

And considering that "my background as a teacher of handicapped children was almost totally ignored."

She was an explosion waiting to happen. A 35-year-old black woman conservative. A Harvard PhD with a strong interest in spiritualism and astrology.

"I told her, 'You are a marked woman,' " says Heritage vice president Burt Pines, who, on a hunch, had kept her job open. He told her the education bureaucrats she had attacked were "going to be out to get you from the first day."

Gardner made it easy. In a "backgrounder" on Heritage stationery distributed at an education conference in 1983, she wrote that federal aid requests by the handicapped are "increasingly unreasonable" and have "selfishly drained resources from the normal school population." Turning to philosophy, she added:

"There is no injustice in the universe. As unfair as it may seem, a person's external circumstances do fit his level of inner spiritual development. The purpose (and the challenge) of life is for a person to take what he has and to use it for spiritual growth. Those of the handicapped constituency who seek to have others bear their burdens and eliminate their challenges are seeking to avoid the central issues of their lives. They falsely assume that the lottery of life has penalized them at random. This is not so. 'Nothing comes to an individual that he has not at some point in his development summoned.' " (Brackets and internal quotes in original.)

She might as well have handed out knives.

The "summoned" idea came from a book based on Gardner's doctoral dissertation. She was quoting herself.

It didn't help that Weicker and conservative columnist Will both have children who suffer from Down's syndrome. Or that Will's wife Madeleine is the nation's highest ranking federal advocate for the disabled; with a $2.6 billion budget, she supervises Education Department programs for 4.5 million disabled children and 936,000 handicapped adults.

Gardner's policy views -- that these programs are overcentralized, wasteful and ineffective; that children are incorrectly labeled "LD," or learning disabled, by teachers seeking excuses to avoid work; and that funds are disproportionately allocated to special interests to the detriment of general educational excellence -- were overlooked in the uproar.

Gardner says she has been subjected to "McCarthyite character assassination."

In the Chronicle of Higher Education she writes: "It was implied that I am a heartless elitist lacking compassion or understanding of the disadvantaged. As a black woman I was particularly outraged by the audacity of that suggestion."

During the 1970s, Gardner taught emotionally disturbed children at Delaware County Intermediate Unit No. 25, near Philadelphia.

As she sits in her Heritage office describing the difficulties and joys of those years, her voice rises with feeling and she seems gripped with amazement at the human condition.

Sometimes, she remembers, a disturbed child would start a ruckus in class and, "like an electric wave, it would undulate across the class and just touch people, almost in sequence. You would watch . . . each one's particular disturbance be triggered, and pretty soon you'd have this whole class full of people with insanity just reigning and raging. I remember one time, this class was particularly disturbed, the last class I taught, I watched that happen and I could not stop them. So I just turned my back to them, to refuse to engage them at all. I figured it would burn itself out like a brushfire. It did . . . I turned back to the class and they all looked sort of embarrassed and we could go on from there. We could talk about it."

Another story pops to mind:

Gardner was helping an autistic girl who was uncommunicative but "in tune at a level that most people aren't . . . One time when we were walking . . . there was an incredible attunement between us. We actually somehow had conversations about where we were going to go. It wasn't just that I was leading her. We were together in this, and we were experiencing things together and sharing together . . . I remember thinking, 'How is it that I am talking to this child and no words are being passed?' "

Gardner smiles and shakes her head.

Always, she says, she would emphasize positive things to the children: " 'Where are you going, what do you have to do to get there? Well, let's work on those behaviors!' "

Sometimes she got through to them. "They were people enslaved to emotions that were too great for them but I found many of them very deep-thinking, compassionate, interesting people. I just liked them. They were tackling problems that a lot of normal kids don't ever tackle . . . You watch this fractured child being buffeted by these emotions . . . rise above them. And then you watch walk out of your room, if you're lucky, a whole individual, in control, with a future. It's really beautiful."

She remembers a child who wrote, "I used to be dead, and now I'm alive."

Almon Wilson, executive director of the Delaware unit, says that when he read news reports on Gardner, he didn't realize it was the same woman. "She worked well with kids," he says. "She had an empathy with kids, if you will. She wasn't insensitive here." Gardner's former supervisor, Suzanne West, says she "wanted the best" for the children and was "very conscientious," but sometimes "dogmatic" and "unrealistic" in demanding parental participation.

Gardner, Wilson and West declined to put a reporter in touch with Gardner's ex-students.

"She has some spiritual beliefs which I don't share, which most Americans don't share," says Harvard psychology Prof. Lawrence Kohlberg, who supervised Gardner's dissertation based on her work at the unit. "Yeah, she believes in transmigration of souls, which is not uncommon in India. She just happens to be in the wrong country."

But Kohlberg adds: "Eileen, whatever she said about the handicapped, has devoted herself to teaching them and in a way that showed tremendous respect and empathy for these children . . . I wish she was a liberal like myself and was promoting educational things in a different way, but her sincerity is beyond question . . . She never meant that she wouldn't do her best to help handicapped kids."

Gardner's formal introduction to the world of the handicapped came through an education course at the University of Wisconsin, when, she says, she visited "severely handicapped kids, autistic and retarded and physically disabled, hydrocephalics and people with brains coming out of their heads, flatheads . . . It was just an amazing experience."

Gardner says she was most interested in "emotionally disturbed kids. They're usually of average IQ or above, some of them are gifted . . . often wrestling with a very difficult home situation and uncontrolled emotions."

But, "The physical component never especially attracted me or the retardation. When I worked with severely retarded kids, I just didn't feel I could . . . make that much of a difference in their lives. I've never worked closely with Down's syndrome kids."

Gardner grew up in the predominantly black village around Lincoln University, southwest of Philadelphia, and attended grade school in a mostly white town nearby. "I was the only black student in my class . . . and I really learned how to stand alone." White kids treated her like "a stranger." She felt like "a chair . . . allowed to be there." She played the clarinet and socialized little.

Her father taught athletics at Lincoln; her mother was a grade school teacher. The Gardners urged their two children to look "on the bright side of things. We never dwelt on negativity . . . If every door was closed but one, then that door would be gone through." The idea that "all people have an equal opportunity to be better than they are" was drummed in. Later, it influenced Gardner's thinking on the handicapped.

Her mother was a big influence.

"I was always a seeker," said Pauline Gardner in a telephone interview. "You're dealing with really naive people on one level," she said of her family, adding, "I'm not people-centered. I guess you'd say I'm . . . drawn like a magnet toward truth . . . For example, when I finally figured out TV was bad, I simply cut it off."

Like her mother, Eileen tried many churches but was not satisfied. Now she says she is Christian but not a church member. Both say they are most deeply influenced by the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century theologian and mystic.

In race matters, Pauline Gardner shielded her daughter. "People were putting their children on picket lines and I would not do it because I didn't want her bitter. When you plant hatred and negativity in a person, you have cut that person down as an effective human being."

Eileen Gardner says she is politically conservative and that the civil rights movement "freed blacks to think freely . . . Often liberal whites are very surprised at my views because they expect me to think a certain way."

What did Gardner mean by "summoned"? The idea that there is "no injustice in the universe" is not unfamiliar; there is the story of Job -- the notion that when bad things happen they are somehow part of God's plan.

But summoned ?

In a detailed interview, Gardner explained that we exist as spirits before birth and make a "covenant or whatever" with God on "what the individual wants to work on, or needs to work on, in his incarnation." The goal is "greater purification" of the soul and to "serve mankind." A handicapped child who dies young could be "developing a compassion or something in the parents." Beethoven's deafness "silenced the physical world so that he could better hear the music from the heavens."

As for the shooting of James Brady, "I'm not saying that he consciously summoned the bullet, but that everyone has an agenda when he is born . . . Some people come in and become focal points for an issue that has reached critical proportions." In Brady's case, she says, the issue may have been the insanity plea of the gunman.

What takes place in the spirit world "in no way says that there is no role for charity," Gardner says. "People are morally obligated to help those in need." But she challenges the idea that "social obligation is synonymous with centralized government programs."

Gardner says the handicapped should think positively. "This notion that I was born with this problem, there is no rhyme or reason, I just have to sit here and suffer it . . . I find that a killing conception of life . . . The notion of a just God and everything working for the good if we will use it rightly and look at it rightly, it puts the control back in your hands."

When she was teaching, "The kids would come in and they would be furious about their life situation. 'Why is this happening to me? . . . ' And I would -- I didn't get into the summoning part of it, I'm not sure that's how I felt then -- but I did focus very heavily on their responsibility for their lives, and I would say . . . 'You can start to control your life, your destiny, make good choices.' "

At bottom, Gardner's thinking seems a highly personal mix. She has no specific source for the "summoned" idea. Is prebirth existence a Christian idea? "I don't know." (Theologians say it isn't.) Do we have previous lives? "That's a very interesting concept. I don't know." The book form of her doctoral dissertation, "Moral Education for the Emotionally Disturbed Early Adolescent," contains references to C.C. Zain's "Astrological Signatures" and "The Kybalion: Hermetic Philosophy," by Three Initiates.

Swedenborg, who said he traveled in the spirit world, influenced Gardner as did theosophy, a synthesis of religion, philosophy and science that borrows from Eastern religions and embraces reincarnation. Asked about Gardner's ideas, the Rev. William H. Burke of the Church of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborgian) in Bryn Athyn, Pa., says, "The way she's put her words together is an overintellectualizing which distorts the whole issue." The president of the Theosophical Society in America, Dora Kunz, said a soul before birth "agrees to whatever circumstances" he will have on earth but that karma, or justice, requires that the handicapped be helped.

Kunz says she's never heard "summoning" used in this context, "and I'm very widely read. That must be a new one."

Gardner is unmarried and spends most of her leisure time reading Swedenborg and "all kinds of old books that are now out of print about life, how to live a good life."

She didn't continue teaching because it was a "burnout situation" and didn't fit the "agenda in my life that was there at birth." Asked what that agenda is, Gardner replies politely, "I don't want to go into it."

In any case, she came to Washington and found an intellectual home at Heritage.

She says she never really wanted to work in the education department. "Bill Bennett had asked me to work with him several times and I really was very wary about going over. I was not attracted to a large bureaucracy . . . but he kept asking me to come."

Bennett was starting an Office of Educational Philosophy and Practice, where Gardner would study the department's programs and write analytical papers on them -- roughly the same thing she does at Heritage.

She reported for work at 9 a.m. on Monday, April 15.

As Pines, her Heritage boss, recalls, "She was assigned a room located within the secretary's office . . . Most of her first day she spent unpacking, trying to master the geography of the building, filling out forms and being sworn in. She became so involved in settling in that she was late for the 5:30 p.m. going-away party which the Heritage staff threw for her."

On Tuesday, Bennett was testifying before Weicker on Capitol Hill when the senator confronted him with the controversial Gardner quotes.

Bennett said the senator was ridiculing Gardner's religious beliefs, which he described as "in the respected traditions of theological thought" and representing "a fundamental doctrine of Christian existentialism."

As it happens, Gardner has read little if anything about Christian existentialism.

Weicker demanded that Gardner and another new Bennett aide whose views the senator didn't like appear before him. That afternoon at a council of war in Bennett's office it was decided to send the two aides to testify.

"It was a serious blunder," says a source close to the action. "We gave away the high ground."

Gardner testified on Wednesday, telling Weicker that if people are disabled, "It was not a cruel act of fate . . . It's from God."

Back at the department, Gardner says, "I was ready to do whatever was right, and that was debatable." Some people, she says, stressed the importance of "holding on so that liberal congressmen couldn't bully Cabinet members or whoever else, that it would be dangerous to capitulate so early."

In the end, Bennett asked her to resign. On Thursday, she did.

That same day, Bennett wrote Weicker that several of Gardner's written "comments concerning handicapped issues strike me personally as insensitive and repugnant."

Gardner found this "puzzling. He shouldn't have been unfamiliar with my views on the handicapped. He had everything that I had written on it, and if he found them insensitive and repugnant, then why did he pursue me for a position?"

Pines, the Heritage man, says Bennett "panicked" and, "Rather than stand by Eileen, as his conservative allies expected him to do, he gave in to his critics."

Bennett said through a spokesman that he had no further comment.

Gardner was 13 when she realized she wanted to work with handicapped children.

A bunch of kids were standing around. Her best friend's 5-year-old brother, a disturbed child, was spitting at them.

"All my friends just kept saying, 'Oh Johnny, don't do that!' They were trying to placate him, and he turned to me and spit at me and I smacked him and he stopped! He just stopped and he said, 'Eileen, how dare you touch me?' And he never spit again, and I thought to myself, 'Well, cause and effect . . . I think I can work with this kind of child .' "

Control became a key concept for Gardner. "Reason must direct the appetites," she says.

The boy's sister was a brilliant and creative girl who took drugs, was sexually promiscuous and, in the end, killed herself.

One time, when Gardner was at her parents' big house on a hill, "A freak, wild snowstorm came up. My parents were gone and I was home alone and the winds were just swirling around the house. It was just violent and the snow was piling up and in the middle of this, this knock came at the door."

It was the friend.

"She was just wild, and I thought . . . 'We're going to have to work here very carefully.' " So Gardner did an astrological chart showing that "her appetites needed to be harnessed." The friend, she says, agreed, but said she wouldn't do it.

Gardner continues: "She stuffed the chart in her pocket, put on her coat and hat, this little ratty scarf wrapped around her face, opened the door and walked into this blizzard, and I never saw her again."

Then: "She went down a bottomless pit, all the while loving the light.