FARMINGTON — It’s 7:15 a.m. on a Thursday morning at Mt. Blue Middle School. Principal Gary Oswald sits at his desk as students and faculty pop their heads in with quick questions.

Oswald has sat behind that desk for the last 17 years and fires off answers without a second of thought. With the 7:30 a.m. bell, the halls are abuzz with students arriving at school and rushing to their homerooms.

7:45 a.m. and Oswald gears up to make the morning announcements.

“Track practice will be held at 7:45 p.m. at the high school,” Oswald bellows over the intercom. “We also still have a left-handed glove in the office. So if anyone is missing a left-handed glove, you can come pick it up.”

He ends announcements wishing eighth-grader Isabelle Fifield a happy birthday and then heads out to the hall to meet the students as they head to their first class.

Students high-five him, compare hair lengths with him and approach him with passing questions.

Oswald smiles through it all as another day in his thirty years with the school has gotten off to a start.

‘NO WAY I WAS GOING TO STAY’

With his retirement effective at the end of the school year, just a month away with the last day of school on June 14, Oswald is embracing his remaining morning routine at a school that has grown to be a large part of his identity.

“Middle school is just special,” Oswald said. “The interaction with different kids every day and the energy they give. It’s never boring.”

Oswald began his career at the school in 1987, when he started as a physical education teacher and coach. Hailing from Brunswick and spending his college years at Plymouth State College (now University) in New Hampshire, Oswald didn’t think he would adjust to the slower way of life in western Maine.

“I came here and there was no way I was going to stay here,” Oswald said. “And here I sit, 30 years later.”

What changed his mind? He found a job he loved and made a life for himself around it. Oswald married his wife, Maureen, who taught English at the school. They raised their three children in the Regional School Unit 9 system and loved every second of it.

Oswald spent 12 years teaching physical education before filling in as temporary assistant principal. He served in that role for a year before being offered the position as principal. In the last 17 years, those who work with Oswald say he has gone above and beyond the duties of the job.

As Superintendent Tom Ward said to Oswald in an email: “Mt. Blue Middle School is Gary Oswald.”

“Gary has done an outstanding job as the principal of Mt. Blue Middle School. He has worked very hard to set a tone for the school of being very student-oriented,” Ward elaborated in a phone interview on Thursday.

Ann Toothaker, who has been the main office secretary for the last five years, shared Ward’s belief that the positive environment surrounding Mt. Blue Middle School stems directly from Oswald.

“He always has his door open,” Toothaker said. “The pulse of this building has always been warm and welcoming. It’s very comforting to know that he is always available.”

‘THESE ARE HUMANS’

As principal, Oswald oversees the school’s 500 students in grades six through eight. He attributes his easy-going personality to being able to thrive in a school level that isn’t ideal for everyone.

“We’re pretty laid back,” Oswald said. “You have to be at this level, because it’s not all academics.”

Oswald said that the age of middle school students requires educators to be able to deal with students not just on an educational level, but an emotional level as well. Oswald said students are trying to figure out who they are and often times this translates into middle schoolers getting a bad rap.

“Kids are going through a lot at this age. They’re going to hate you one day and love you the next. And you can’t hold that against them, because they had a bad day and they don’t know why they had a bad day.”

Oswald always keeps his door open and encourages students to come by if they need anything. He says it’s a way for students to feel like they have a safe place to go.

His leadership style got him named the Maine Middle School Principal of the Year for the 2008-2009 school year. Oswald said that one of his favorite memories from his tenure as principal was the assembly the school surprised him with to let him know he had won the award.

“It was a true surprise,” Oswald said. “I truly didn’t know that the assembly going on was for me.”

Over his three decades in education, Oswald said the things that have discouraged him the most are changes in curriculum that treat students as if they are all the same, such as standardized testing and proficiency-based education models.

“Those tests do not give you a true picture of that individual student,” Oswald said.

However, the implementation of new disciplinary models like the positive behavior intervention and support method, which focuses on rewarding good behavior to dissuade bad behavior, are initiatives Oswald can get behind because they are rooted in the middle school philosophy of treating students as individuals.

“These are humans and you cannot expect them all to be the same,” Oswald said.

In the way that he greets his students in his office and the hallways, it’s clear to see that Oswald appreciates each student for their own unique energy that they each bring to the school.

This energy is something he says will be hard to shake when he retires to South Carolina to join his family this summer.

“I’m retiring, but I’m not going out of work,” Oswald said. “My wife told me ‘You need to get a job or you’re going to go crazy.'”

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate

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