Bonnie Kline has a loving husband, a 4-year-old son and a steady job, a nice life by anyone's standards. Only a closely guarded secret marred her happiness -- she was a high school dropout.
"I was 16," Mrs. Kline said. "I thought I knew it all. I was rebellious. I wanted to work and make money -- isn't that funny? I look back and think why in the world would I quit?"
Tonight, 15 years after dropping out, she'll collect her high school diploma.
Forty-six others will graduate with her from the External High School Diploma Program operated by Anne Arundel County's public schools.
Graduation means students have successfully completed 65 tasks demonstrating "life skills" or competency in various areas, said Roni Nudelman, the program's director.
For example, a student could show competency in spelling, grammar and punctuation by writing a resume and cover letter to apply for a job. If there were errors, the letter and resume would have to be done over until it was completed perfectly.
Students work at their own pace. Mrs. Kline began attending sessions for the program, offered at Annapolis Middle School, in August.
The experience, she said, "has opened up a whole new world for me."
"I've been on this search for happiness," she said. "I've moved quite a bit, and I've been searching for something I couldn't find. Then I realized that nothing would make me happy, unless I was happy with myself."
She's spent her life working in the food service industry, but said she never really had a high-paying job.
The prospects seemed so different in 1979 when she decided to quit Berkshire High School in Burton, Ohio, said Mrs. Kline, who now lives in Annapolis with her husband, son and mother.
"When you're 16, you're living your life as if each year was your last year," she said. "Then you realize you're getting older, and you have to make a living, depend on yourself, and you've wasted all those years."
For her mother, Carolyn McKenzie, Mrs. Kline's decision to leave school brought a sense of deja vu.
"I never graduated, either," Mrs. McKenzie said. "My father was dead and my mother had a stroke, and I had to quit school to go to work. I didn't want [my daughter] to end up like me, a widow at 51 with no education. It's different now. When I left school you could make it on your own without a diploma, but today that's important."
Mrs. McKenzie's husband, Paul, died last year, and as she struggles with her own future, she, too, is thinking of going back to school as her daughter did.
"I was sick about it when she decided to drop out," Mrs. McKenzie said. "I've never been disappointed in her though, but I knew what she could be. I always said she had the Big Four: a strong faith in our Lord, beauty, brains and a personality that doesn't quit."
Even having the Big Four and parents who supported her despite her decision to leave school didn't make Mrs. Kline feel good about herself. Embarrassing moments overshadowed her successes.
"We went to my husband's class reunion about six years ago," Mrs. Kline said. "Oh, it was terrible. I kept waiting for someone to pop the question: What high school did you graduate from? It's not something I liked to talk about. People just assume you finished school. A lot of people think high school dropouts are poor people from dysfunctional families. It's just not so."
Her son's age was another factor in her decision to get a high school diploma. Bradley will enter kindergarten in the fall.
"Join the PTA?" she said. "Oh, I wouldn't have joined the PTA. I would have died of embarrassment just at meeting his teacher."
Finally, she decided she had to return to school.
After a tip from her sister, who completed high school in a similar program, Mrs. Kline found the External Diploma Program.
"It was scary to walk into that school," she said. "I thought they'd look down on me, but they didn't. This was a great program. And now that I've got a diploma, I've already found a higher-paying job."
She was such a good student that she was selected as one of two who will speak at graduation.
Tonight, she said, she will speak "from my heart."
"A diploma is more than just a piece of paper," she said. "It's a key. It opens up a lot of opportunities. This has opened up a whole new world for me. There's no holding me back now. I want to go and talk to a college counselor."