I'm still not sure what to make of the story of Eugene Lang and P.S. 121, except to say that I'm awfully glad they met each other.

Lang, a 66-year-old millionaire industrialist, was the 1980 graduation speaker for the Harlem school he had attended 50 years earlier. For some reason (according to The New York Times, where I read the account) he abandoned the work-hard-and-you-too- can-be-a-success speech he had planned and instead said something that stood his low-income, dropout-prone audience on its collective ear.

Finish high school, he told the 61 6th graders, and he would pay for their college education. He said he was setting aside $2,000 for tuition for each of them and would add more money every year they remained in school.

That was in 1980. The students are now 11th graders, and all of the 52 youngsters who remained in the New York area are doing well enough to qualify for college. Of the nine who have moved away, at least two still keep in touch with Lang.

Given the makeup of the school -- black and Hispanic and overwhelmingly low-income -- that is an extraordinary stay-in- school rate.

The Times' interviews with the youngsters reveal how profoundly Lang's inspired offer affected them. Several said they might have concluded that college was a luxury their parents could never have afforded and not given college a thought. Others believe they might have succumbed to the lure of drugs and premature sex. And many of them say Lang's offer changed their and their parents' attitudes toward school.

"My mother is after me all the time about homework," one of them said. "She said if I blow this opportunity, she'll kill me." Another commented: "You can't get into drugs and sex and stuff and do this, too. My friends started doing drugs, so I switched to (another) group of friends."

What are the lessons? One is that our glib talk about "certain" children having no ability to delay gratification may be off base. Six years of hard work for a reward that amounts to four years of still harder work doesn't sound like the kind of prize that would motivate students at a school such as P.S. 121.

But it also seems clear that the children were responding to something besides the promise of free tuition. After all, there are tuition-free colleges to which they could have gone. The fact that one man made a personal commitment to them surely worked in a way that the best-conceived government-sponsored tuition plan never could have.

And, as Lang understood, the commitment by itself might not have been enough. Therefore, he put a young man on his payroll to keep an eye on the program on a day- to-day basis, checking with the youngsters on their academic progress, chatting with them, even visiting their homes to talk to their parents.

But maybe the biggest thing that happened to P.S. 121's class of 1980 is that Lang's gesture set them apart in a positive way, defined them as special.

It's a point we miss when we insist on defining (and rewarding) people on the basis of their most negative characteristics -- whether it's public housing or programs that communicate to children that we feel sorry for them and want to help them because they are so pitiful.

What Lang did, at a cost few of us can afford, was to make 61 young people special in their own eyes.

They have even formed a program and an organization based on their specialness: the I Have a Dream program. Said one youngster, "Other kids envy us and tease us sometimes, like saying, 'You got an old man miser looking after you.'

And so they have. Fortunately, Lang, who flies coach class and rides the subway, doesn't see his tuition outlays as some silly extravagance. Besides, he's got a little secret that might save him a few bucks:

"Hell, a lot of them will get full scholarships," he said. "Colleges fight over good minority students."