At 50, high school graduate Joan Carroll didn't celebrate her new diploma with a wild bash in Ocean City or a pull-out-all-the-stops party. But she wasn't blaming anybody who did.

Glowing, the Glen Burnie mother of five and grandmother of three clutched a "CongratulationsGraduate" balloon and smiled until the little lines at the corners of her eyes crinkled.

"I feel wonderful," she said. "Now I understand why, when these kids graduate, they want to scream and jump up and down."

Of the 13students who received diplomas during Thursday's countywide evening high school graduation exercises, Carroll stood out.

The others were all younger -- in their early 20s, mostly -- who left high school not all that long ago. Carroll hadn't been in a classroom for 30 years.

Every year, at least one "Joan Carroll" passes through the evening high school program, said Nelson C. Horine principal of Glen Burnie Evening High School, which Carroll attended. "Every semester there's one, two or three people who are well into their adult years," he said.

Still, Carroll has been an unusually exuberant, eager student, he said. She earned A's in all her classes -- business math, physical science, American literature and public speaking -- and served asa role model for her younger classmates.

During the brief, simplegraduation ceremony at Board of Education headquarters on Riva Road,Carroll was one of two students chosen to speak about the evening high school experience. She said she was happy to have been accepted asa classmate, and she hoped she was an inspiration to students who had yet to graduate.

Two of Carroll's children, Kimberly Carroll, 20, and Henry Jones, 27, certainly found inspiration in their mother's experience -- especially since they learned only recently that she never finished high school.

" 'Til today I didn't know," said Kimberly Carroll, a student at the Community College of Baltimore. "She didn't talk about it."

"It was never discussed," said the new graduate, "because the focus was always on them going to school."

At 17, Carroll dropped out of high school to have a baby and get married, then forgot about education for three decades while she raised her children, whose ages now range from 21 to 31.

Unlike many drop-outs, who are haunted by a sense of inferiority about their incomplete education, "I never even thought about going back after that," Carroll said.

When her first baby was 10 months old, Carroll started working as a receptionist at a Catholic church in Baltimore County, then later as a counter girl at a sub shop and finally as a commissioned salesperson at the Glen Burnie Sears, a position she still holds after 24 years.

"Last year I started thinking about (going back to school) because of the economy. I'm making good money. But I cannot go out and get another job making that amount of money with my limited education."

The fact that options are limited without a high school diploma creates a bridge between older students like Carroll and younger classmates like Everett Washington, 21, the other student speaker at last week's commencement.

"All these people are in the same situation," Horine said. "They're either coming back to fulfill a dream or to make more money. They all have that common bond."

Washington, varsity basketball Player of the Year at Arundel High in 1989, took hisevening classes at Severna Park Evening High School. He never met Carroll, and his reasons for dropping out of school were quite different.

"I was just bored," he said.

But like Carroll, he went back because he saw his economic future would suffer. "I thought I could earn money without a high school diploma. I learned the hard way," he told the audience during his speech.

Washington, who helps supporthis 18-month-old son, worked for Office Movers of Odenton until six months ago, when he quit to take a job at a fast-food restaurant while he went back to school.

This week he'll take a test to become a guard with the state prison system. If that doesn't work out, he said, he'll go into the Air Force.

Carroll wants to start taking courses toward a degree in human resources. Jones, who is finishing his master's degree in criminal law, told his mother to "Go for it.

"Shedid it! The No. 1 kid here!" he said on their way home to a small family party after the graduation exercise.

"I'm very proud," Kimberly Carroll said. Then she laughed. "I never was in the newspaper whenI graduated."

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