CLARIFICATION--Jacqueline Dana Mulcahey, who was pictured with a story about Southern Marylanders receiving high school diplomas through the Maryland Adult External Diploma Program, originally left school just two credits short of graduation because of a family problem. She received an Outstanding Performance Award at the Oct. 15 graduation, honoring her for completing the degree program in just 4 1/2 months. Today she is active in support groups for people with reflex sympathetic syndrome, a nerve disorder that she is fighting. (Published 10/24/1999)

One was a 43-year-old former drug and alcohol addict who once made his home in a cardboard box below a bridge. Another was a 35-year-old mother of three who felt she could no longer help her kids with their homework. Yet another was a 21-year-old who raced to pass the GED exam before her baby was born.

Last week, these Southern Maryland residents, including a Charles County school district employee who said he dropped out of school because his classmates were making fun of his skin color, walked across a stage to collect the high school diplomas that had eluded them the first time around. Nearly 270 Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's County high school dropouts received their high school diplomas this year through the Maryland Adult External Diploma Program and the General Education Development Exam.

Young and old, they dragged themselves back to the books to earn the diplomas they mistakenly thought they could do without.

For Clyde Woodlief Jr., it took many small steps to reach the podium as the commencement speaker at the Charles and St. Mary's graduation ceremony last Friday. The 43-year-old North Carolina native and Waldorf resident started his quest for a GED diploma 10 years ago.

"I'd go and I'd quit. I'd go and I'd quit," he said. It was a pattern he had developed early on in life, he said. That's why he quit school in the middle of the eighth grade. "I hung around the wrong people," he said.

He worked odd jobs for a while and served in the military for three months until a leg injury led to an honorable discharge. He eventually landed a job as a receiving manager for Kmart; now he works for a roofing business.

Before getting his act together, during the height of an alcohol addiction, he served some time in jail and eventually became homeless. "You're looking at a guy [who] in the winter of 1985 was sleeping under the 295 bridge in a cardboard box," he said. With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous and a local treatment facility, he quit drinking and using drugs. He has been sober since January 1986.

He decided he wanted to work as a counselor at the treatment facility, but knew he would have to earn his high school diploma. He started taking classes in 1989, but quit several times.

"The bottom line is, I really didn't want to go," he said. "All my life I didn't want to complete anything, but then I made a commitment to complete this."

He made that promise to his grandmother shortly before she died in 1993. It took him a few more years to get there, but last Friday he walked across the stage at Westlake High School to pick up his diploma. In celebration of his victory, he raised his arm in the air and let the tears roll down his face.

"I know she was looking down on me saying, 'You go, boy. You go, boy,' " he said.

Irene Coates, 35, made it to the 10th grade at Thomas Stone High School before dropping out because she was "hanging around with the wrong crowd."

Coates spent most of the next 17 years staying at home to take care of her children, now ages 13, 10 and 5.

It took her a long time to build up the nerve to enroll in the adult external diploma program. The program is tailored for adults who have acquired academic skills through real-life and work experience. To graduate, they have to successfully complete several written and oral assignments.

"I was nervous about coming," she said. "I felt out of place. I felt I was too old for the program."

Coates spent two years working toward her diploma. She became a devoted student, a permanent fixture in the small basement classroom where she occupied the desk at the far left corner. Although she sometimes became frustrated, she was determined to complete the program for her children.

"How can I help them with their schoolwork if I can't help myself?" she said.

Now that she has her diploma, Coates plans to enroll in Charles County Community College to study data entry and computers. The shy woman who has spent most of her life at home is now breaking out of her shell. With her newfound confidence, her next goal is to have a full-time job for the first time in her life.

"I'm going to knock down my barriers and go straight for it, nonstop," she said.

Lawren Elizabeth Thompson, 21, had a master plan: She was going to graduate from Northern High School in Calvert County and go straight to college on a scholarship. Then she was involved in a car accident and had to work almost full time to pay for the damage.

She was going to school at 6:45 a.m., returning home at 2:45 p.m., leaving for work at 3:30 p.m. and returning home at 11 p.m. "I was not keeping up with my work as I should have been," she said. She failed some courses and decided to drop out in the middle of her junior year.

What followed was a series of minimum-wage jobs--from delivering auto parts to working as a cashier at 7-Eleven to flipping burgers at a fast-food joint.

Then Thompson became pregnant. "When I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, it put everything into perspective," she said. "I had another life to take care of other than my own, and I needed to do more with my life than take odd jobs for minimum wage."

When she began preparing for the test, she was pregnant and living in a homeless shelter. She took the test when she was 4 1/2 months pregnant. She has since given birth to a daughter, Emily, and moved back in with her parents in Dunkirk.

At Calvert County's graduation ceremony last Thursday, Thompson sat in the front row. For her, a high school diploma isn't just a piece of paper. It's a sign of independence.

"I know I have to be able to support my daughter on my own," she said.

Joseph Ronnie Swann, 43, a Charles County native, said he dropped out of Thomas Stone High School in the 10th grade because he could no longer take his classmates' taunts. They made fun of him because he of the color of his skin.

"I didn't get along with the kids in school," he said. "They made fun of me because I was black and light-skinned. I had to fight a lot."

Instead of finishing school, he washed dishes and worked in landscaping. He got married and had a son, but then divorced. In 1981 he got a job with the Charles County school system and eventually became assistant manager of building services. But he knew that he couldn't get promoted without a high school diploma and decided to push himself to seek it.

"I didn't think I could do it," he said. "I felt I wasn't smart enough. But once I got started, I did it." It took him seven months to earn his diploma through the adult external diploma program.

"I did it on my own," he said.

CAPTION: Betty Ann Carter, 52,spoke at the graduationceremony last week.

CAPTION: Jacqueline Dana Mulcahey cheers as she walks across the stage last week. Nearly 270 Southern Maryland residents have earned diplomas.

CAPTION: Sherdanna Tibbs holds son Elijah, 2, after the ceremony. She and other graduates studied in the Maryland Adult External Diploma Program.