Hammond High School Principal Sterlind S. Burke Sr.'s hint on attire to the 18 students who lunched with Gov. Martin O'Malley, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and schools Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin in the school's media center yesterday was simple and direct.
"My statement to them was, 'Dress to impress,'" he said.
The students, mostly juniors and seniors, had followed that dictum, and those who asked questions were clearly looking for more guidance from the adults.
"What was one thing in your life that stands out as 'you'? What one thing would you say you're extremely proud of?" Louis Prezzi, a 17-year-old senior, asked O'Malley.
The governor harked back to his long-shot 1999 campaign for mayor of Baltimore, recalling when "all the smart people" said he had no chance.
Winning that election, he said, gave him the chance to work on improving the performance of Baltimore's schoolchildren and to lower the homicide rate. He didn't mention it, but it also opened the way for his successful gubernatorial campaign last year.
"Part of your question kind of threw me off, because it's not about yourself, it's about community," O'Malley said.
The governor joined Ulman, other elected officials and a large contingent of staff and school board members at Hammond as part of a school-opening tour of as many of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions as his staff can get him to.
He lunched on sandwiches at a long table set up in the school's media center, spending about 90 minutes at the Columbia school.
Casey Morris, 17, wanted to know whether O'Malley always knew he would go into politics.
O'Malley again returned to campaign themes, relating his youth in a home where politics, religion and education were stressed.
"The notion you would ever fail to vote was alien in our house," he told her. He knew he wanted to be a lawyer like his father, and the hunger for public office came later, he said.
Asked by Lea Fuchs, 16, whether any high school experience "taught you a lesson" for later life, O'Malley recounted two - the idea that "expectations become behavior," and historian Arnold Toynbee's observation that "individuals and society progress in response to adversity." Too much adversity can wither ambition, while too little can cause atrophy, "like an unused muscle," he said.
O'Malley wasn't the only top official asked personal questions.
Tierney Evans, 16, asked Cousin whether any person was a role model for him when he was a youth.
Cousin explained that he was one of six children born to a father who, as a black man living in segregationist Georgia, had very little opportunity for education.
"My father had a fourth-grade education, but he always stressed the importance of education as a means of improving yourself," he said. Cousin also mentioned a Latin teacher at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, his alma mater, who never spoke English, not even during homeroom. Cousin then quickly recited the Pledge of Allegiance in Latin.
Yasmin Corbin, 17, asked Ulman, "What's your passion?"
He replied that as someone born and raised in Columbia, he feels strongly about the principles that the planned town was founded on, and he added that he is determined to continue them. That feeling was intensified this week, he said, when he sent the older of his two daughters off to first grade.
"What we do as a county does affect schools. Everything," he said.