NEW YORK -- A few months ago it appeared that New York City Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez would succeed in imposing his "Children of the Rainbow" curriculum -- which calls for first-graders to be taught about homosexuality -- without much protest. But it now seems plain that "Children of the Rainbow" is as dead as a doornail.

It took a feisty Queens widow and grandmother, Mary A. Cummins, who chairs a local school board (District 24) in a middle-class Queens neighborhood, to confront Fernandez and the city's education bureaucracy about the curriculum. Cummins saw the 416-page "multicultural" curriculum as a fundamentally insidious document. And her objections ignited a citywide protest.

Just what's in "Children of the Rainbow"? The proposed curriculum advises first-grade teachers that "at least 10 percent of every class will grow up to be homosexual." No source is provided. Fernandez's curriculum goes on to suggest that "classes {for first-graders} should include references to lesbians/gay people in all curricular areas."

Cummins counters that "5- and 6-year-olds don't know what homosexuality is. When a child is old enough to ask a question, you answer it, but that doesn't mean teaching that homosexuality is a morally valid alternative lifestyle."

Fernandez's controversial curriculum recommends that 6-year-olds read several curious texts. They include "Gloria Goes to Gay Pride Day," "Heather Has Two Mommies" and "Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin." Moreover, every teacher is urged to set up so-called "theme centers," which are meant to feature "pictures and books reflecting a variety of family groupings (e.g. single parents, lesbian /gay parents)."

Cummins believes -- with considerable justification -- that her opposition to the curriculum has caused her to be slandered both by public officials and the media. She is frequently represented as an anti-gay bigot, a charge she adamantly rejects.

"I have nothing against gays," Cummins says. "I couldn't care less what they do in their homes. I've had homosexual friends and neighbors who didn't talk about their sex lives any more than the rest of us. But I don't want gays proselytizing in our first grade. I have had letters from homosexuals who agree with my stand."

Cummins refused to compromise on what she viewed as an issue of profound principle: "I would never give up on a principle. I'd go out and scrub floors before I give up on a principle. I found out that wars are lost because people are not persistent. You have to be persistent. ... These are our kids."

Her tough stance created a chain reaction as other school boards throughout the city began to realize that they too could resist the effort to impose political correctness in the first-grade classroom. An all-black school board (District 29) became the second to say no to "Children of the Rainbow." A number of others have joined the fray, demonstrating that city council speaker Peter Vallone is right when he says of Fernandez, "The chancellor has wandered off course." Vallone adds, "While teaching tolerance, Fernandez was less than tolerant of widespread parental concerns."

Fernandez, in fact, fought Cummins with all the power he could muster. He suspended the entire District 24 school board, which has nine members, and tried to convince the city at large that Cummins's views were out of sync with those of ordinary Queens parents. Eventually the chancellor was forced to recognize that he -- and not Mary Cummins -- was out of touch with rank-and-file parental sentiment. On Dec. 9 his own board forced him to reinstate District 24's rebellious board.

Mary Cummins, who was born in Manhattan and moved to Queens after finishing high school more than four decades ago, is the widow of a businessman and has had two children, one of whom died at the age of 12. "You live through that, and a bully like Fernandez can't scare you," she says. Once a copy writer for an advertising agency, she has been active in her community for many years. She was first elected to the local school board 16 years ago, and is now in her third term as president.

Fernandez's curriculum is ostensibly intended to teach tolerance. But Cummins asserts that there have been no instances of racial bias in her school district and notes that there is a sex education course as well as an anti-bias program available to the 27,000 Queens children who attend the 25 schools there -- a program that teaches children to respect everyone. "Why only respect gays?" she asks. "What about children whose parents are alcoholics?

"If some parents want to tell their children about gay lifestyles at the age of 2, that's their privilege, but we're not going to let them foist their views on someone else's child."

Fernandez now -- at long last -- professes a willingness to meet and negotiate with Cummins and her board. But Cummins wonders how she can possibly be expected to negotiate the non-negotiable?

Fernandez's contract has but a few months before it expires. Cummins -- along with most informed New Yorkers -- doubts he will try to stay on. Her apparent impending victory may surprise a lot of people, but not her. Cummins takes a straightforward view. The curriculum was, she says, "a horrible invasion of parents' rights. I never thought it would fly."