Getting through high school can be traumatic enough without facing four years of college.

Like the protagonists in the movie "Breaking Away," large numbers of 1980 graduates are choosing alternate routes on the road to their future. Unlike the movie, however, many seem to have their future surprisingly well mapped out.

As David Tompkins graduates from Rockville High School in Montgomery County, he and many of his classmates are heading for fun and sun in Ocean City.

Unlike many, Tompkins will return to the security of a fulltime job in the business in which he expects to make his career. During the past year, he has taken English and history classes at Rockville and put in an additional 30 to 40 hours per week at Ultragraphics, Inc., a graphic arts studio in Kensington.

"I started out doing paste-up and drawing," Tompkins said. "Then I got into photography." When clients bring in art work, he photographs it according to their specifications. Now that school is out, he plans to work 40 to 50 hours a week for Ultragraphics, where his employer has invested in new photographic equipment to utilize David's developing skill.

"I feel they think I'm pretty responsible," said Tompkins. "I love working there. I work all the time; if there's work, I work."

As a hobby, Tompkins photographs people. Ultimately he hopes to go into freelance photography or open his own graphic arts studio. In a year or so, he intends to take classes in art and photography at Montomery College.

"I'm steadily trying to improve," he added."That's what college is going to do for me -- improve the quality of my work." Asked what he believes his work is lacking, he laughs: "Perfection!"

For Tompkins, one dream has already come true.

"I was so involved with work that it was more important than school," he said. At one point, he found himself failing. With the help of a tutor "who stuck with me and knew I was going to make it. I'm graduating. I'm the first male to graduate in my family. I feel great to be the first one to do it."

Money is a major concern for today's graduates, but apparently is not the sole concern.

"I'm hearing more about happiness," said Frank Mastroianni, counselor at Robert E. Peary High School in Rockvill. "Most of the kids want to be happy with what they're doing." Mastroianni sees the class of 1980 as realistic, "much more so than they were four or five years ago, when there was a lot of forestry and conservation. That followed the whole aftermath of Vietnam, against killing and into saving."

John King of Rockville High School would willingly fight for his country in case of war: "If you live here and take advantage of everything our country offers, I don't see why you can't give it back."

Currently working at Erol's Color TV in Wheaton, King plans to enroll in the television service technician program at Montgomery College. He will attend classes "raning from testing tubes to intricate circuitry" two or three nights a week, he said, while spending an additional 40 hours of "on-the-bench training" at Erol's. Eventually he hopes to work for Vitro Laboratories, designing and building missiles.

King estimated that 50 percent of his class is choosing a technical trade in preference to college this fall."There's much more opportunity going into a technical trade," he said. "College will help you more in the long run, but some people aren't willing to wait for the long run."

"It's more important to be happy than rich, because you can be poor and enjoy what you're doing, and you can be rich and never be satisfied," he said.

A major source of satisfaction for King is constructing hardwood furniture -- "tables, chairs, anything that's solid wood. That'll be my second job in the basement of wherever I live." His eyes lit up when he described some of his projects. "I've always been good with my hands," he added. "Anything you want to be good at, you can be good at."

Janet Weaver views her classmates at Robert E. Peary in Rockville in another light.

"They are ambitious," said Weaver, who will graduate tomorrow. "A lot of people really know what they're going to be."

Very few graduates are opting against college this year, she said, but she is one of those few. "I pretty well know myself," she said. "I know I couldn't handle college."

Instead Weaver plans to enter Washington Business School in September with her eye on a position as executive secretary to "the highest man" -- or woman -- in a company.

"I'd like to be somewhere I could get up high and be important," she said. "I like to meet people."

Weaver works as a cashier for a Fayva shoe store, but would like to find full-time work as a receptionist this summer. At one time she thought of going to work at the National Zoo and caring for the pandas, her favorite animal, but now regards the idea as unrealistic: "The way the world is now, you have to get money to survive. You have to have money or else."

Jim Belt, 18, has a firm grip on his future. He chose Bladensburg High School in Prince George's over a school nearer his home in College Park because "it has the best vocational program in Prince George's County."

Although he worked at Burger King during the school year, he intends to join the electrical union this summer and take night classes in electricity while working days for the union. In three years, when he is 21, he can take the test for his master electrician's license.

"I have all the book knowledge," he said, "but I don't have enough hands-on experience." In electrical shop class, he worked with a two-story, eight-room simulated house "working with live voltage -- the real thing." He and his twin brother John, who is going into air conditioning and refrigeration, will eventually work for their stepfather, wiring commerical buildings.

"A fantasy of mine is to publish a book," said Belt, who said he published short stores in Boys Life and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine when he was about 14.