"I can't read, but I'm not ashamed of myself," the 18-year old student says. Nor does he seem distressed that after 12 years of schooling he cannot add or substract. "There are probably millions of people out there like me. God just didn't give me the gift."

"I don't think I could have gotten a better education anywhere else," says Chuck Lane as he turns off a faucet in the physics lab. A National Merit scholar and Presidential Award finalist, Lane is bound for Harvard in the fall. "I really wanted to come here to B-CC. It definitely wasn't a mistake."

When Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School holds its 50th graduation exercise tomorrow, both of these students will march up to the stage in cap and gown and receive identical diplomas.

The two members of the Class of '79 - with their sharply different levels of academic attainment - illustrate part of the dramatic change taking place in the character of B-CC High, a suburban school with more than a half-century tradition of excellence.

Perched just off East-West Highway, B-CC two decades ago sent 90 percent of its graduates off to college - many to such schools as Harvard, Vassar and Yale. The honor roll of B-CC graduates reads like a Who's Who of business, government and the professions.

"It was a typical, All-American school," recalls Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge John F. McAuliffe, a 1950 graduate. "I guess the clearest thing I remember was the tradition of academic excellence. It truly was extraordinary."

That tradition, for some students, lives on today.Five B-CC seniors - more than from any other Montgomery County school - were admitted to Princeton this year. Of the 14 members of the B-CC graduating class who applied to Harvard, seven were accepted.

But 15 of the seniors who will receive B-CC diplomas tomorrow were enrolled in a special six-year program for learning-disabled students and slow-learners. They are graduating with reading abilities ranging from the first to eighth-grade level.

Many of the other graduating seniors, too, seem far removed from the memories that B-CC alumni and teachers still carry from decades before.

For during the last 20 years, B-CC has undergone a metamorphosis at least as great as the community it serves, becoming a racial and economic reflection of the change that has taken place in southwest Montgomery County.

Once surrounded by tobacco fields, B-CC today is a school mirroring the strains and energy of an emerging suburban metropolis pulsating between Westmoreland Circle and 16th Street, the District Line and the Capital Beltway.

Today, sons and daughters of the Rollingwood and Edgemoor wealthy pick their way past hallway craps games on their way to class. Suburban sophisticates and street dudes cut class and cram into cars for jaunts to Georgetown. The aroma of beer and marijuana outside during lunchtime has become nearly as much a part of the school ambiance as the clang of hallway locker doors.

To supporters, today's B-CC is an educational oasis resembling a college more than a public high school. Within the school's nine buildings, they say, intelligence quotients span 80 to 150. They view as a strength the fact that slow learners and remedial readers hobnob with Merit Scholars, blacks from Silver Spring, whites from Chevy Chase Village and foreigners from 48 different countries.

To detraftors, including some of the 15 percent of the area's parents who elect to send their children to private schools, B-CC's place on the learning scale lies somewhere between a baby-sitting agency and a country club. It is a place, they say, where students are given too much rein to smoke, joke or squander their three years away.

In the view of B-CC Principal Thornton F. Lauriat, the truth falls somewhere in between. As Lauriat succinctly puts it, "We are real."

B-CC has journeyed a long, winding path in time since its founding in 1926, a trail depicted in hallway murals in the school's graffiti-crowned administration building. Some murals, dating from the 1940s, show robust students leading high school cheers and dancing cheek-to-cheek at farewell proms.

During its "golden age" 30 years ago, B-CC sent more students to more colleges than any other school in Montgomery County. It was a time when Bethesda and Chevy Chase were full of cosy enclaves of single-family homes nestled under tall trees; when Rockville was considered rural and farmland surrounded a three-lane Rockville Pike for miles.

Today, B-CC is dwarfed by commercial establishments and high-rise office towers that are part of a boom produced by Metro's Bethesda subway station, currently under construction only a McDonald's away on Wisconsin Avenue.

This area in the heart of Bethesda, once known as "Five Points," has become the county's second-largest business center, employing more than 17,000 workers. And it will get bigger. County plans call for commercial development from the intersections from the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and East-West Highway.

The rapid changes that took place in this area during the 1970s presented B-CC with the most trying decade of its 53-year existence.

Nearly three-quarters of B-CC's 1,400 students still live in Bethesda or Chevy Chase, two of the wealthiest and most densely populated regions of Montgomery County. Many are the sons and daughters of judges, surgeons and nuclear scientists.

While 11 years ago there were only two blacks in a school of 2,000 students, today blacks comprise 12 percent of the B-CC student body. Some are the children of affluent D.C. residents, whose parents pay $2,419 in out-of-state tuition costs to send them to B-CC. Most come from lower-income families living in Rosemary Hills, Kensington, and Silver Spring, communities to the east.

It's also increasingly common to hear students speaking Spanish in BCC's hallways. Hispanics now account for 4 percent of the school enrollment, drawn both from wealthy diplomatic families and low-to-moderate-income immigrant families living in the apartments a few blocks away on Bradley Boulevard.

The growing diversity of the student body - together with new state laws requiring that public schools provide special programs for slow learners and the handicapped - have sharply altered the character of B-CC High.

While adjusting to the changes in the world around the school, students and staff also have had to cope with two years's worth of water leaks, electrical failures, and constant pounding, hammering and drilling while a $4.1 million renovation was carried out to meet the demands of changing times.

In response to demand for more vocational courses, work crews have been overhauling the school's plumbing and wiring to expand the wood, art, and metal shops.

"At one time, public education was a very elitist proposition," says B-CC Pincipal Lauriat. "The emphasis was on finding students who were capable and getting them to college.

"But that has changed in America," he says. "The mission is now to educate the masses."

The transformation of once-culturally homogeneous B-CC into more of an educational melting pot has not been easy.

Whites express concern over sometimes tense race relations. Blacks complain about low representation in school activities. "Freaks" (marijuana smokers) and "jocks" (athletes) feud in a latter-day extension of the hard hat-hippe clashes of the 1960s.

Perhaps most disturbing of all to many teachers and parents is the growth of a hall culture at B-CC that extends beyond the distant corners of the school's nine buildings and into the streets of Bethesda.

Couples stand outside classrooms 15 minutes after the tardy bell rings, embracing and kissing. Two boys follow two girls into the girls' bathroom to share a marijuana joint.

Several blacks, ignoring second-period bells, huddle around a portable tape recorder, listening to Donna Summers.

A group of jean-and T-shirt clad "freaks" lounge on the school's front steps, discussing the bongs they used to smoke marijuana the previous night.

And throughout the day B-CC students in pairs and threes and fours saunter past the mammoth East-West Towers office complex for a Coke or quick smoke at Shakey's, Jerry's, or Mac's.

First-period class attendance at B-CC is equal to the county-wide average - about 90 percent. But B-CC's 77 teachers and administrators agree that the past year's record of false fire alarms, locker burglaries, and several distrubing drug muggings suggest that discipline is a bit out of control.

In the view of teachers, the immediately crisis lies in class attendance. Of the 45 students interviewed in preparing this series, 36 said they skipped more than two classes a week.

The turning point that led to many of the changes that have taken place at B-CC came in the late 1960s when the school led the way in sit-ins, marches and antiwar protests.

"It was a time of radical discontent," recalls English teacher John R. Barrett. "Suddenly the dress code vanished and relevancy became the key word. Students found that school wasn't the world they were reading about in newspapers and seeing on television. Math and English weren't relevant, so they just didn't come."

So the school changed to fit the students. B-CC became the first county school to implement a program where students could earn academic credit by participating in social and political causes. It was a program that was later adopted by all county schools.

It wasn't the only change. A county schools' handbook on student rights and responsibilities was written, listing a series of appeals and grievance procedures for students to use after disciplinary actions by educators.

"Students have rights but they aren't aware of their responsibilities," says social studies teacher Robert B. Appleton. "We've given them the opportunity to screw around and they have taken advantage of it."

More importantly, class-cutting and other discipline problems reflect larger problems at student's homes, teachers and administrators say.

Physics teacher Francis L. Maciorowski remembers one student who punctuated each of his statements in class with a four-letter word. In the student's report card, Maciorowski mentioned that the student's language was often profane.

"The kid came back the next day and said his father had gotten a good kick out of that," Maciorowski says. "It all starts at home. If I hear kids cursing in the hallway, who am I to say they can't?"

English teacher Elizabeth Layton remembers a time 25 years ago when she often met with student's parents to discuss classroom performance. Today, Layton says, she often hears an answering machine on the other end of the telephone when she calls parents' homes.

"Parents' don't seem as interested today," she says. "Kids are more independent and left alone a great deal more. Parents seem to be more interested in their lives, what they're doing."

To Lauriat B-CC's discipline problems are risks inherent to the school's adjustment to enrollment and curriculum changes.

"It's a fine line we continually tread, he says. Where do you have too much freedom?. . . How many kids can you tolerate who make mistakes?

"If I wanted to," he says, "I could devise a system where a kid couldn't move without staff knowing when, where or how. Philosophically, that's not my way. Structure is necessary as long as it doesn't inhibit free thinking and expression. The trick is to find a balance."

It's the same "trick" teachers are trying to master in the classroom, juggling disparate abilities, races and nationalities with their own academic standards and expectations.

"In one of my classes I have a kid with an 82 IQ, another with 137. How do you manage a range like that and still teach them?" asks Layton. "You simply try to find some middle ground. I'm passing students now who wouldn't have passed 25 years ago."

Today's students also have more interests outside B-CC.

According to a school poll conducted by the student newspaper, 60 percent of the students in this year's senior class work, holding clerical or mechanical jobs.

"School used to be more the centre of students' lives," English teacher Nancy J. Gallagher said. "But there is a kind of charm now - other outside interests students have - that makes school more of a side pursuit. Teachers have to compete with that." CAPTION: Picture 1, With a graffiti-covered wall in the background, a student plays a fast game of Frisbee on a playing field at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. By James A. Parcell - The Washington Post; Picture 2, student wit is reflected in the motto for the senior class painted in the school parking lot, and in the varied garb of the quartet. There no longer is a dress code; Picture3, Principal Thornton F. Lauriat stands outside the main building at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High. There are nine buildings on campus.