The girl looks into the camera lens with exquisite smoothness. There's no joking or wincing or nervous huge smiling. Not too warm. Not too cool. She's 12 years old. Little hands are flopped neatly one over the other. The sailor dress is hiked up, absent-mindedly no doubt, showing some crinoline and knees. She's in sixth grade, this is her class picture, and Hillary Diane Rodham possesses things already -- calm, balance, white shoes and an easy public smile by virtue of her overbite in progress. There's an almost unbearable Shirley Temple quality... .

See that older hand resting on her shoulder? Follow the arm up. That's Elisabeth King -- the lady with pointy glasses and pearls and a mouth that doesn't know how to smile perfectly every time. She was a teacher at Eugene Field Grammar School in Park Ridge, Ill. -- and then later, at Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High. She was strict, a mind-made-up sort of person. Scared some kids. Failed some kids. Not our Miss Hillary.

"Hillary was Mrs. King's favorite human being on Earth," says Ernest "Rick" Ricketts, a classmate. "When she moved on to Emerson Junior High, she taught Hillary for two more years."

She never got in trouble. Never got detention. Her grades were often perfect. Hillary Rodham was a chronic teacher's pet, a Brownie and then a Girl Scout whose sash was so loaded with badges and dazzling little pins that it's amazing she didn't walk with a stoop. The burden of all that ceaseless public do-gooding! When she got to high school, she rejected offers to have her ears pierced with a needle and potato, according to her best friends, didn't smoke in the bathroom, didn't make out with boys in "The Pit" at Maine South's library, didn't even wear black turtlenecks.

"Ohhhh no," says Betsy Johnson Ebeling, when asked if she and Hillary ever cut class. "The only time I remember us doing that was Senior Ditch Day, kind of an organized event -- and we thought we were being very daring."

Hillary Rodham mostly loved school. Her mind was inquisitive and impressionable and whatever attention was missing from boys -- not that she missed it -- she got from teachers. She returned their approval with loyalty beyond comprehension. When she left Park Ridge for college, law school and, finally, the great beyond of Arkansas, she kept sending handwritten letters -- single-spaced, both sides of the page -- to Donald Jones, her youth minister from First United Methodist Church. After encountering her next mentor, Marian Wright Edelman -- the founder of Children's Defense Fund -- Rodham would follow her faithfully, not one break in contact, for 23 years.

Girlfriends and family get much the same loyal treatment. After Rodham married Bill Clinton in Fayetteville -- she was 28 years old -- her mom and dad and two younger brothers went along on the Acapulco wedding trip, stayed in the same hotel. In 1987, she moved her parents down to Little Rock, so they could be closer to Chelsea. And when she goes to Chicago for high school reunions -- she goes, of course she goes -- she still stays overnight at Betsy Johnson Ebeling's house.

The country has never waited like this -- with such conflicting emotions -- for a First Lady to move herself into the East Wing. She was surely the messiest subtext of last year's presidential campaign. At one extreme you had Pat Buchanan, in the Houston Astrodome, spitting out the words "lawyer spouse." On the other side, she's provoked a certain amount of weeping. Old girlfriends flood up with affection when they start gabbing about Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton. It's a complicated response that somehow gets to the essence of the Hillary Issue. The world has so grossly misunderstood their warm, funny, smart, tough, loyal Hillary.

The Weepers ... they describe a friend who never gripes, never self-obsesses, never discusses "the pain" Bill Clinton caused in their marriage, and who has a belly laugh you can hear all across the governor's mansion. They describe a friend who never fails to ask what books they're reading, how their husbands are doing, knows where their children are going to school and what disease their parents are dying of.

"What people don't seem to realize," says Sara Ehrman, a Washingtonian who has known Hillary Rodham for 20 years, "is that Hillary's so conventional, so traditional, so Midwestern, so middle-class. Her taste in art is middle-class. Her taste in music is middle-class. Her clothes. ... She's very simple, brilliant, a nice person, and a product of her upbringing."

So it's just that simple?

One spring, the entire Rodham family went every day to Hinckley Park and watched Hugh Rodham pitch and pitch and pitch until his daughter Hillary learned to belt a curveball. In sixth grade, she started taking piano lessons from Margaret-Lucy Lessard, who had a big dark house down the street, with her dead stuffed pets, Pomeranians, in a glass case in the living room. And in eighth grade, she learned to square-dance -- but didn't date or anything. Everybody went out in groups. She was a mimic, a Ping-Pong player and a wading-pool lifeguard.

The pool at Park Ridge Country Club wasn't too far away, but she didn't go there, didn't belong -- not that that meant much. Park Ridge wasn't that kind of Chicago suburb, like Lake Forest or Winnetka. It was solid, tidy, not fancy or full of money. It was right near the airport. The houses were pretty big though -- Hillary Clinton's childhood house, where her parents lived for 38 years until moving to Little Rock, is a gray sort of lady, a stone-brick house that once had a front porch, sitting with dignity and grace on the corner of Wisner and Elm streets. Hillary's old bedroom was painted yellow, had wooden floors and a sun deck.

Family came first with the Rodhams. Republican politics came next, then maybe the church, the public school system, the public parks, the public sense of everything. After World War II, the suburb boomed with young families, all growing up at the same time, all running in and out of one another's houses and backyards, selling lemonade, spraining their ankles on Slip 'n' Slides, playing Parcheesi and checkers while they mended, going to the Pickwick Theater for movies, Ted & Pearl's Happy House for Cokes.

"There must have been 40 or 50 children within a four-block radius of our house," says Dorothy Rodham, "and within four years of Hillary's age. They were all together, all the time, a big extended family. There were more boys than girls, lots of playing and competition. She held her own at cops and robbers, hide and seek, chase and run -- all the games that children don't play anymore."

Dorothy Rodham named her daughter Hillary because it sounded exotic and unusual. It is a family name, she thinks. A boy's name too -- at the time -- which was a much talked-about, daring sort of move for Dorothy in October 1947, when Hillary was born at Edgewater Hospital on the north side of Chicago. She weighed more than eight pounds. "Very mature," Dorothy laughs, "upon birth."

Hillary Rodham was also a "good-natured, nice little baby," according to her mother. How typical. Are we starting to get a feel for her personality? She liked books, being read to. She concentrated on things. Focused. She liked figuring problems out. Dorothy and Hugh Rodham worked their lives around her -- their first child, their little Hillary. And when she was 3 and her little brother Hughie was born, the family left its one-bedroom apartment in Chicago and moved to Park Ridge. It was 1950. Everybody was moving to the suburbs.

She was never shy. She wasn't afraid of things -- people or dogs or anything, says Dorothy. Hillary could even beat up the neighbor's kids -- she did once, arms swinging, eyes closed -- but only if she had to.

They are all like that, the Rodhams. A bit on the scrappy side, they veer toward competitive and opinionated, but not obnoxious about it. There isn't a family sense of defensiveness, just a willingness to take you on. "Sure, my sister is tough as nails," says Tony Rodham, 38, a private investigator in Miami, with a certain familial pride. "She's a lot of those things that people have said she was."

"But that's just one facet," finishes Hugh Rodham -- the other brother, a 42-year-old public defender, in Miami too. "That's her business face. You know, like your game face when you play football?"

Hugh Rodham -- father to them all -- is a gruff, macho character, the kind of guy who growls disapprovingly at his family but brags about them later, quietly, to an unsuspecting neighbor. He studied physical education at Penn State. During World War II, he trained sailors in something called the Gene Tunney Program -- kind of like boot camp -- before they went off to fight. In today's psychobabble, we'd call Hugh Rodham "withholding," unless you think having a sense of humor makes a big difference. He was tough to please, curmudgeonly, famously tight with money, and teasing. He always drove Cadillacs. He always voted Republican. For 30 years, he had a drapery-making business in Chicago -- bought the fabric, printed designs on it, sewed it, hung the curtains -- with only one guy, really, helping him. He did big orders -- corporations, hotels, airlines. And if his two sons ever came along with him (Hillary seemed exempt from this) to work for a day, he never paid them. "Are you kidding?" says Tony. "We'd get, like, an extra potato at dinner."

When Hillary came home with lots of A's from Eugene Field Elementary School -- as she would later from Emerson Junior High and Maine East High School, and then Maine South High School when it was built -- the big joke in the family was that she'd show Hugh Rodham her report card and every time he would grunt: "You must go to a pretty easy school."

The boys had to follow in Hillary's wake of academic excellence, DAR community service awards and so forth -- one gushing teacher after the next -- but they could play sports to make up for less stellar grade point averages. "Our parents didn't just pay attention to our grades," says Tony -- the only one of the three not to hold a graduate degree. "They cared about everything we did."

So the boys both played football -- Hughie was even the high school quarterback -- and their dad came to all the games, but somehow couldn't bring himself to sit in the bleachers with the other parents. Hugh Rodham took a lawn chair out, way out along the sidelines, and sat by himself.

"He wanted us to succeed," says Hughie.

"But he didn't want to pressure us," says Tony.

After Hughie's best game -- completing 10 passes out of 11, winning 36 to zip -- he came home to find his dad lounging on the sofa. "I got nothing to say to you," Hugh Rodham deadpanned, "except you should have completed the other one."

That's how he'd been raised in Scranton, Pa., anyway. Family came first, but why let them know it? His father had come from England, from Northumberland, when he was 4 and wound up working at the Scranton Lace Co. Hugh, one of three boys, worked at the lace company too -- right out of college during the Depression -- but got fed up with lifting boxes for lousy money. He left for New York, then Chicago. In 1937, he met Dorothy Howell when she applied for a job as a secretary at the Columbia Lace Co., where Hugh Rodham worked as a curtain salesman until he went into the Navy.

Dorothy had grown up in Alhambra, Calif. -- near Pasadena -- but doesn't remember her childhood too fondly or doesn't like talking about it. Her father was Welsh, in any case, and her mother -- Della Murray -- was Scottish and French and Indian. She found herself in Chicago, is all, and it was 1937 and there was Mr. Impossible. She married Hugh Rodham in 1942 after much romantic back-and-forth during wartime. Hillary was born five years later. "Maybe that's why she's such an accepting person," Dorothy says of Hillary. "She had to put up with him."

What sort of mother was Dorothy Rodham? Unpretentious, wise, funny. "I remember Hillary's graduation from high school," she says, "and being slightly embarrassed by the honor medley." It wasn't until years after her kids were grown that she got to college herself, but when she did, finally, at the prodding of her son-in-law Bill Clinton, she studied philosophy.

"Yeah," says Hughie. "Mom got straight A's. The women in our family are something else. You should meet my wife, Maria."

Hillary had good looks -- straight blond hair, blue eyes, cheekbones, confidence -- which she grew out of, back into, out of, into again. She never seemed to notice much. Later, when her hair grew darker blond, then brown, she never thought of bleaching it until she was in her thirties. Later, when her mother suggested she might wear makeup, Hillary didn't want to. This doesn't seem born of shyness or modesty. She debated, took drama classes, never stooped or held her head down. "I think she thought {makeup} was superficial and silly," says Dorothy. "She didn't have time for it."

Whatever goal lingered in her mind -- she has said she wanted to be an astronaut, her friends remember her talking about becoming a doctor -- her focus was far away, years away, another place. "She had absolutely no vanity," remembers Jeannie Snodgrass Almo, a high school classmate who now runs Kids First, a day-care center in D.C. "She was totally unconcerned about how she appeared to people -- and she was loved for that."

While her girlfriends had crushes, stared at boys, padded their bras, Hillary talked about politics, Sputnik and sports. "We used to sit on her front porch and solve the world's problems," says Rick Ricketts, her neighbor and friend since they were 8. "She also knew all the players and stats, batting averages -- Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle -- everything about baseball."

"None of my kids dated much, until they were older," says Dorothy Rodham. "And Hillary always valued herself very highly. I liked that about her."

Donald Jones arrived in Park Ridge when Hillary was in ninth grade. He was 30 years old -- fresh from divinity school, fresh from Manhattan, fresh from the world beyond Slip 'n' Slides and softball games and growling Hugh Rodham. Hillary had grown up going to First United Methodist -- a red-brick church not too far from their house -- but it wasn't until Jones turned up, the new youth minister, that certain spiritual teachings started sinking in.

Kids called his Thursday night class "The University of Life," and, indeed, Jones gave them a dose of art and real life, a taste of civilization and civil rights. He showed them prints of van Gogh's "Starry Night" and talked about God and nature. He showed them Picasso's "Guernica" and talked about God and war and violence. He rented 16mm movies from Chicago -- Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight" and Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" -- and talked about them afterward, talked and talked and talked. "I was used to relating theology to pop culture, theology to art, theology to the world," says Jones, now at Drew University in New Jersey. "By the time I got to Park Ridge, I had read all kinds of things. I got them reading too."

So Hillary Rodham found herself, a freshman in high school, reading Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard. "I remember when he brought an atheist to the group for a debate with a Christian over the existence of God," says Ricketts. "There was also a discussion of teenage pregnancy, which got the whole congregation upset."

Under Jones's tutelage, there were lake camp retreats with swimming, winter retreats with skiing -- but he also took "The University of Life" to the South Side of Chicago to meet street kids, gang kids, blacks, Hispanics at a youth center there, actually leading them all in a successful discussion of "Guernica." And in 1962, he took them into the city again, to Chicago's "Sunday Evening Club," to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak.

"Hillary still talks about it, remembers it vividly," says Jones. "She says that afterward, I took everybody backstage to meet Reverend King. Now, I can't say that I recall this precisely, but she says that I introduced King to each of the kids, one by one."

She wasn't a cheerleader, or homecoming queen, or one to join the pompom squad. But Hillary Rodham wasn't a valedictorian either. She was more of an organizer -- and that would be true at Wellesley too. She got mostly A's, was a National Merit Scholar and all that, top 5 percent, but she wasn't first in her class, or third, or fifth. "There was a small group of us at Maine South, competing for the National Honor Society and other things. We all knew each other's grade point averages," says Bob Stenson, now an accountant in Marin County. He remembers graduating seventh in the class of 1965 -- out of 1,000 -- and Hillary being around 15th.

"She was strong and secure and graceful -- almost aloof," he says. "I always felt a little funny around her. She was a tough competitor and formidable. I was always hoping she'd stumble a little bit."

She liked running for office -- or just running things. She was vice president of her junior class, then lost the election trying to be senior president. (Don Jones, then back at Drew for his PhD, still remembers getting her philosophical letter about it.)

The fall of her senior year, she worked for the Barry Goldwater campaign, wearing a sash that said "Goldwater Girl." As a representative of the student council, came up with the idea of holding a mock political convention in the school gym with posters and podiums and nominating speeches. "She even had political demonstrations," says Ricketts, "planned in the aisles."

That Easter break, Hillary and seven of her girlfriends went to Pompano Beach, Fla. -- inspired by several viewings of "Where the Boys Are" at the Pickwick -- renting a station wagon and persuading a young P.E. teacher to go along as a chaperon. "We thought we would meet boys from all over the world there," says Betsy Ebeling, "but the first walk we took on the beach, we ran into three guys from Maine East and hung out with them the whole time."

Hillary must have known by this time that she had been accepted at Wellesley for the coming fall. "She was set on going to an all-girls school," says Dorothy. At first, it was a tossup among Radcliffe, Smith and Wellesley, but when Hillary saw pictures of the rural Wellesley campus -- the lake in the middle, the quaint Victorian classrooms, the tiny surrounding town -- she decided.

Hugh Rodham drove his wife and daughter all the way to Boston in the Cadillac. Hughie and Tony, left at home, still remember when Hillary went away to college as their weekend with "the baby sitter from Hell."

Dorothy Rodham remembers it a little differently, of course. "Aside from a few trips away with girlfriends," she says, "Hillary hadn't really been away from home. I loved having my kids around, and when she went to Wellesley, well, it was really, really hard to leave her. After we dropped her off, I just crawled in the back seat," Dorothy says, "and cried for 800 miles."