By the time a man turns 62, he might wonder whether going back to school for a high school diploma is worth the time.
For M. Burnell Bortner, not going back would have been the waste.
"Good grief! Why should I waste time when I can learn something new?" said Mr. Bortner, a retired factory worker who lives in Westminster.
He is one of about 900 county residents who enroll each year in Adult Basic Education classes at the Multi-Service Community Center of Carroll County Schools.
The program is free, thanks to a $61,000 federal grant that covers most of the expenses. Courses provide everything from preparation for more advanced high-school level courses, to a short course on fractions for a parent who wants to be able to help a child with homework.
"Our Adult Basic Education is very individualized," said coordinator Melissa Heiland. "If you come in and bring your son's math problems, we will go over that specifically with you. We will specifically go over a manual you bring in from work."
By the time he got to the eighth grade, Mr. Bortner was 18, having fallen behind several years while recovering from a head injury that almost killed him when he was 13.
The injury left him with slurred, slow speech and a hearing loss that requires him to wear hearing aids on both ears.
He also lost three fingers in his former job in a furniture factory in Hanover, Pa. He retired last year. He says he's had a rough life but doesn't like to think of himself as handicapped.
"I can do anything I want to if I put my mind to it," he said.
He writes prolifically, often sending letters, such as one denouncing flag-burning, to editors of newspapers.
Though he doesn't do badly in reading, writing, history and science, "math is my hang-up," he said.
After retiring, "I wanted to get a part-time job in a different field," he said. "I like to associate with people and sell things. I find now I need a high school diploma."
He has since gotten a job as a janitor at Weis Market in Westminster.
While his goal is to get a diploma through the General Educational Development program, he first must take preparatory courses through Adult Basic Education.
"If it'll help me get another job, OK," he said. "If it don't, my time ain't wasted."
Shirley Loveless, 41, of Finksburg also left school after falling behind while recovering from rheumatic fever. She quit at 18, having gotten as far as the eighth grade.
Instead of entering high school, she took the advice of a principal who suggested it might only frustrate her.
"He said I would be better off learning on my own," she said.
"I was still learning how to read and write," she said. "I was still under the third-grade level."
For years before starting adult education classes in December, her lack of a diploma and reading and writing skills haunted her.
She couldn't help her son, now 20, with his homework while he was growing up.
"His homework was getting harder for me, and I'd say, 'Go ask your father,' " she said. Before long, he wasn't even bringing work to her.
When Mrs. Loveless would go to conferences with his teachers, the old anxieties of her difficult school years would come back to her.
"It was like I was back in third grade," she said.
Most of all, she had the feeling that everyone else she met knew more than she did.
"It's like you're out of place. Like everybody's got an education but you," she said. "That's when I decided to go back. I was tired of being out of place."
Last fall she went to take the assessment test at the Multi-Service Center, so that she could be placed in a class appropriate to her level.
"When I came up here and tried for the test, that was the biggest step I ever took," she said. "I was scared."
Now, she is in a class with five other people, all her age or older.
"I'm not the only one out there," she said.
She said she has always been able to find work, despite what she now knows is dyslexia.
The reading problem causes her to transpose letters she has read when it comes time to write them down.
"Dys-lex- . . . I can't even pronounce the word," she says with a self-conscious smile.
Adult Basic Education is one of several adult programs offered by the Multi-Service Center on Airport Drive and at other locations in the county, including Northwest Middle School in Taneytown, Liberty High School, the North Carroll Branch of the Carroll County Public Library, the Carroll County Detention Center and local shelters for the homeless.
Teachers also will go to a workplace and hold classes for employees, as they do at English American Clothiers and London Fog Corp.
Other programs are the General Educational Development and Evening High School programs, which are more structured and lead to a diploma.
Anyone who is considering going to these programs can call one number -- 848-6272, the Literacy Hot Line -- for information on classes as well as volunteer groups that will provide a tutor.
"The staff are pretty well tuned to ask a few key questions and send the person in the right direction," said Larry Norris, director of alternative programs for Carroll County Schools.