The class at Oakland Mills High School was English for Speakers of Other Languages, which meant the students were accustomed to hearty doses of vocabulary.
Even so, they appeared taken aback when Principal Frank Eastham laced his motivational speech with words one would scarcely associate with a school administrator: "truant officer," "welfare," "food stamps" and "learning disability."
During the 40-minute talk about his personal story, Eastham spoke of obstacles he faced while growing up impoverished in Washington, Pa., living on federal assistance, missing as many as 40 days of second grade to take care of an ailing single mother and showing such a lack of interest in school that he talked his mom into keeping him out of college preparatory classes.
Yet he also spoke of success, strength and power, traits he embraced as he vaulted from his childhood surroundings to college and developed a passion for helping students from all backgrounds.
During his tenure in Howard County public schools, his efforts have hardly gone unnoticed. Last month, the Maryland Association of Student Councils named Eastham the 2013 Wayne Perry Principal of the Year.
The award, named for a retired Harford County principal, is given to principals nominated by an MASC region and its officers. Eastham is the third consecutive Howard County administrator to win the award.
"That award will surpass any other accolade I get because it came from students," said Eastham, who often gives inspirational speeches to classes at Oakland Mills. Principal there since 2004, he is in his second tenure at the Columbia school, having previously served as assistant principal. He returned after helping to launch the Gateway School, an Ellicott City alternative learning facility that evolved into Homewood Center.
Eastham's background is not unfamiliar at Oakland Mills, where nearly 36 percent of its 1,144 students receive free and reduced meals. At one moment during his speech to the ESOL students, Eastham paused momentarily and struggled to gather his emotions.
"Sometimes, it's very emotional," he said later, "but the power of a personal story can change someone's life. At first I was a little uncomfortable sharing some of my life experiences, mostly because I felt adults would judge me and think less about me. I realize it's about the kids, and if my story could positively impact the life of one or two kids, it's worth it."
Eastham's honor comes shortly after Oakland Mills made headlines last month when four of its students were arrested and charged as adults in an attempted armed robbery of a Columbia Flyer taxi driver. Three of the teens were arrested without incident at Oakland Mills High, police said.
Eastham said in the aftermath of the incident, he encouraged students not to talk about it, to prevent inaccurate information from spreading in the media.
"With students — and parents as well — my philosophy is that they're still students and we still care about them," Eastham said of the four students arrested. "My counsel is that whatever occurred, we should use this incident and all aspects of this incident to make better choices for the future."
In his talk, Eastham told the students he's someone who grew up making difficult choices in harrowing circumstances. After he missed long stretches of time in elementary school, school officials notified a truant officer. School officials back then, he said, didn't figure he'd amount to much. At times, it appeared they would be correct.
"I was on welfare and food stamps off and on throughout my life. I had a learning disability in reading [diagnosed] in the seventh grade. Can you believe that?" Eastham asked the students. "I had to be put in a special trailer outside of the school to learn reading. And it was very hard for me to do well in school. I got mostly C's, sometimes D's, every once in a while I'd get a B. Those were some pretty significant hurdles I had to deal with."
He said he got through the difficult times by talking to himself. One thing he uttered over and over was, "When I grow up, I am going to be happy."
The turnaround, he said, came in the 11th grade when he joined the student organization Future Teachers of America because "there were some girls in the club that I liked." One activity was to teach for a day.
"Guess which classroom I went to teach," he told the students. "My second-grade classroom. That's where the truant officer came after me. That's where I knew the teacher didn't believe in me. I went back and taught that whole day.
"At the end of the day, I realized that one person could work with a group of kids and change their lives," Eastham said. "That really juiced me up."
Eastham told the students he embraced the three R's — resilience, relationships and responsibility.
"Oftentimes, we become discouraged because we feel unsuccessful if we don't get to the place we want to go," he said. "Success is all along this journey. Success comes with barriers that we're able to overcome."
The students said they were inspired by their principal's speech.
"He said some really good stuff for our future that's really going to help us," said ninth-grader Karla Portillo.
"He's very good with the kids," said Oakland Mills ESOL teacher Kathryn Tillman. "For them it's not only motivational to hear the story, but the fact that he is the leader of our school, to hear the journey he's been on is inspirational for them."