Millbury Street’s Akillian celebrates 32 years of educating Grafton students

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Millbury Street’s Akillian celebrates 32 years of educating Grafton students
Gayle Akillian stands in front of her bookcase in her classroom at Millbury Street Elementary School. (Photo/Evan Walsh)

GRAFTON – When books walk away from classroom shelves, Gayle Akillian doesn’t chase them.

Her classroom at Millbury Street Elementary School is filled with books — shelves of books, buckets of books, crates of books, carousels of books. Akillian owns the majority of the books in the room, which she accumulated from retired peers and Scholastic coupons. Her collection totals nearly 2,000.

So, when the occasional title goes missing — perhaps one of her students became wrapped up in a book and forgot to return their latest read — it’s not alarming to Akillian. In fact, Grafton’s longtime reading specialist celebrates when books “walk” from her classroom-turned-library.

“If they loved it so much they don’t want to return it, it means they’re going to read it again,” she said.

Akillian has spent most of the last 32 years helping Grafton’s elementary-age students read. Along the way, she has become the district’s longest-tenured educator, impacting the lives of thousands of young children.

Road to Grafton

While Akillian has taught in Grafton for the last three decades, she hails from Holden and makes the early-morning commute down Interstate 190 from her hometown to see her students daily. Although she graduated from Worcester State University in 1983, her first teaching job didn’t come right away.

With so few teaching opportunities available, Akillian’s career started at the Park Avenue Iandoli’s supermarket. Still, Akillian was determined to work in education, just as she had dreamed her whole life.

She was inspired by her teachers who went the “extra mile.”

“I’ve wanted to be a teacher all my life. When I was a little girl, we’d pick up little kids during the summertime and we’d do arts and crafts. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” she told the Community Advocate.

Akillian would soon get her break. After a sixth-grade teacher moved to an assistant principal role in Worcester, she was asked to substitute for the last six weeks of school. The role led to a series of subsequent jobs, including a three-year reading specialist role in Shrewsbury.

In 1992, Akillian arrived in Grafton, spending 20 years teaching fourth-grade students before returning to her reading specialist role. Akillian now helps second- through sixth-grade students read in her book-filled classroom.

There’s “just something” about teaching, Akillian said.

“You never know what you’re walking into, I guess you could say. In some professions you have the same thing every day — my husband has the same route every day. He’s a courier. I might have the same kids, but you never know what they’re going to do. You never know what they’re going to say,” she said.

A love of reading — and teaching

Akillian mainly works with small groups of students — typically one-on-two or oneon-three — to help young readers work through roadblocks. Her work involves a focus on phonics, sentence structure and pronunciation; she may spend four years working with one student to develop their reading skills.

However, it’s rewarding work. Akillian remembered that one parent reached out to ask why her child — who had been struggling to read in the past — was discussing Charles Dickens at the dinner table. Akillian and the student had gone through an illustrated, child-level version of “A Tale of Two Cities” earlier in the day.

“Those little things — that’s why I do it. I just love all the little moments,” she said. While teachers may be sad when students move on, it’s bittersweet for Akillian. It means she’s done her job. “There’s some that I’ve worked with for three years, and it’s like, ‘OK, you don’t need me anymore.’ And they just look at you like, ‘What?’ I tell them they can do this on their own now. It’s like taking the training wheels off,” she said.

Akillian has touched the lives of thousands of students, but students have also impacted her. One time, a first-grade student invited her to their birthday party; it was a gesture Akillian will never forget.

As the longest-tenured teacher, some have asked Akillian when she will retire. Her answer remains the same — when I’m ready. And, based on her continued passion for educating, that time doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon.

“I don’t feel it… I could retire — people know that; they keep asking me that — but I still love what I do. I still love the kids. Getting up in the morning is not a hardship for me to come in here and do it – I even teach in the summertime. I just love working with the kids,” she said.

“Everyone says you’ll know when you’re ready. I’m not ready yet,” she added.

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