There must be an unwritten rule that states: To know a person's heart, ask how he spent his tax return.

In the case of Sandra Hawkins, concerned parent, the answer would be "helping kids publish poetry."This spring Hawkins not only sunk her tax return into publishing a collection of kids' poems, she sunk a good share of her credit card into it as well. The result is "Softly Speaking," an anthology of verse from students of the Midvale Middle School.

"Any student who turned in a poem ended up in the book," says Hawkins. "I wanted to bring a little self-esteem to their lives, and maybe cut down on misbehavior. Linda Taylor of Agreka books helped greatly. So did our judges and many others."

The outcome is impressive. "Softly Speaking" is a handsome book with a classy type-face, four-color cover, index - even a mission statement.

The statement stresses the need to help kids "think deeply, examine and express creatively their ideas opinions and experiences."

"I've already talked to parents who say their kids are actually spending time writing poetry now," says Hawkins. "It helps them to bring their feelings out into the open."

And the feelings in "Softly Speaking" are not always spoken softly. Hawkins refused to censor the content, so poems range from gentle love odes to harsh expressions about body functions and violence. Writes Amber S. Powers:

I'm tangled in a web of mixed emotions.

I can't get out to save my soul

So many feelings, so many devotions.

I feel eaten whole.

For most of the poets here, the feeling is mutual - from page one to 117.

In the end, however, readers will find the insights into young minds worthwhile. And the variety of experiences and attitudes is not only refreshing but wonderfully informative about kids going through their formative years.

Cash prizes for award-winning poems went to Vanessa Benedict (first prize), Scott Tuckfield, Randy Tucker, Kati Hansen and Drew Mallory (second prizes), with 10 students receiving honorable mentions.

For copies of the book ($15.95), call Hawkins at 255-5828. If you want to pay with a credit card and help her pay off her own, call 1-800-360-5284.

"It's a beautiful book," says Hawkins.

And a worthy project.