For the Bladensburg Barber School, it is the best of times: The economy is better and short hair is back. That means more students and more haircuts.

But some things never change at the storefront institution at 4810 Annapolis Rd. Customer Bobby Martin remains a fixture, as he has for 20 years. Every three days, the grizzled former gas station attendant, disabled since a motorcycle hit him a few years back, comes in for his free shave.

The students hone their skills on his stubble with a straight-edged razor. Then, when they're ready to take the barber's test in Baltimore, he goes along for the ride and the haircut they must give before three examiners. The haircut is free.

"Once they get a license, they got a job," said Martin, 42. "I just do them a favor. I don't mind helping anybody get work."

Sometimes Bobby Martin sweeps up or runs errands for John Hall, the 32-year old master barber and instructor who must approve all haircuts. Regular customers line up to sit in Hall's chair, and the students hold him in awe.

Hall learned to barber here in 1973 and has been at the school since. His prescription for success in his chosen field: "You need good eyes and a good personality. You have to be very patient, have good self-control."

Bladensburg is one of six privately owned, accredited barber schools in Maryland, which has 1,100 shops and 3,900 licensed barbers. A seventh school is at the Patuxent Institution, a state penal facility in Howard County.

There's a lot of school spirit at Bladensburg, established in 1959 by the late Bruno Maisonneuve and now owned by Gill Maisonneuve, Bruno's nephew. There are no school yearbooks, graduations or class reunions, but old grads often attend the annual Christmas party, and it's common for relatives of former students to matriculate.

Students pay a dollar an hour tuition to cut customers' hair for $3. That's half of what a haircut costs these days in many full-fledged barber shops. The cheap price and the promise of satisfaction or money back keeps the customers coming. There are 25 chairs and 43 students, both men and women.

To graduate, students must spend 1,200 hours at the school--including 750 hours cutting hair and 100 shaving it--and pass a battery of tests on such arcane subjects as the physiology of the face and scalp.

But there is much more to barbering than the basics. At Bladensburg, they say it's an art.

"This is like doing your own creation. Nobody can take it from you," said George Alston, a licensed barber who rents a chair at the school he attended in 1978. Alston, 27, is highly regarded by the students for his skills, particularly with women's hair. He hopes to become an instructor.

"After I finish my product, I feel good. It's something I've done," said Tina Pinkney, 33, whose husband, a former student, has a barber shop and beauty salon in Suitland.

The Bladensburg Barber School is not just a citadel of creativity. It's also a springboard for the modest dreams of people like Arthur (Squirrel) Burgee, a 42-year-old laid-off steelworker who wears a distinctive white cap.

In 10 years around Washington as a rodman, Burgee put steel in the Metro, in Springfield Mall, in an addition to Gallaudet College and in the Marriott hotel at National Airport. Now he is "trying to find a new trade" to support his wife and children, he said.

Matthew Coleman, his customer from Riverdale, nodded approval as Burgee held a mirror up for him. "You gotta be satisfied," the student barber told him. "When you sit in this chair, you the boss, you the boss."

Several chairs over, student Leon Reynolds, a retired Air Force master sergeant from Calvert County, said, "When I started, I was making a lot of mistakes. After watching Mr. Hall, I learned it was easy if you're determined." Reynolds, 42, is determined to learn the trade and then transfer his skills to the South. He will not return to his native Calvert County in Southern Maryland because "there ain't that many people who get their hair cut down there."

The students and the customers at Bladensburg Barber School have changed with the neighborhood and the county. A 1962 photograph shows all white men; today, most, but not all, students and customers are black, and many are women.

"We have black, white, Korean--all kinds," said Maisonneuve, a French-Canadian by birth. "That's what you have to learn. Suppose you work in a shop and a nice black person comes in and you don't know how to cut his hair. If you're black and working in an all-white area, you have to learn to cut white hair."

Pinkney, who puts in a full day's work as an FBI supervisor before going to school, enjoys the people along with the coursework. "I look forward to coming here," she said. "I get to release my tensions from work."

And "Squirrel" Burgee says the school "is my second home now. Trying to make it, trying to make it. You can't be jiving."