By Kristin Schultz
Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons Spanish teacher Melanie Anchukaitis bid adios after 36 years of helping students conjugate verbs and understand Spanish culture. She leaves behind a legacy of service, caring and inspiring students to see beyond themselves and gain a new perspective.
Assistant Principal and Athletic Director Pat Moran took Anchukaitis’ class when he was a student at ND-BG.
“She is synonymous with the school,” Moran said. “When you say Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons, the next thing you say is Melanie Anchukaitis. She has always been there for the kids, and she has always cared about them. She hasn’t changed.”
Anchukaitis, a Niskayuna resident who grew up in Buffalo, began her career when Notre Dame was a girls-only high school in 1970. She taught there until her own children came along then returned to the merged, co-ed high school in 1988, and she has been ever since.
Her love affair with teaching and with the Spanish language began before she could even drive a car.
“I wanted to teach Spanish since I was in seventh grade,” she said. “I was so taken with the idea that you can communicate with another culture in another language.”
She spent a year living with a family in Spain while she attended the University of Madrid.
“They were a working-class family with seven children and no one spoke English,” Anchukaitis said. “I just had to dive in. You learn a lot about yourself in those situations.”
Students in Anchukaitis’ class had the same experience. From the moment they walked through the door on the first day, she was speaking to them in Spanish. She said it took a bit, but students caught on and participated in lessons, learning while speaking.
In the tradition of the Catholic orders that founded the school, it was not enough for Anchukaitis to merely teach a language. She wanted her students to use their language in service to their community.
So, in 1994, she began a mentoring program in which students went to Pleasant Valley Elementary School in Schenectady to work with non-English speaking students. Since then, her students have volunteered at Paige Elementary, St. Kateri and the Brown School. The service component is part of the AP Spanish 5 curriculum.
“I’m very proud of that and the school encourages it,” Anchukaitis said. “It’s part of who we are. You use your talents to give back to others.”
Giving back is just what Anchukaitis has always done.
“She has put in millions of hours after school, on her own free time,” said Moran. “She helps with the musicals and coaches the mock trial team. She takes the kids on trips to Spain. She embodies the Catholic identity we proclaim.”
If the Catholic identity has stayed the same, the demographics of ND-BG haven’t, and that’s a good thing for Anchukaitis.
“Kids now come from more unsettled situations than they did in the 1950s and 1960s,” Anchukaitis said. “Every kid responds to a vision of community and the idea is that our school provides that community. It’s about respecting others and being respected.”
To be sure, there have been tough times. Over the years, she saw students coming to class carrying greater stress due to their personal situations or challenges. Perhaps her saddest day came only a couple of years ago when a student died tragically and she was asked to give a eulogy.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Anchukaitis said. “I said, ‘Someone this young should not be dying. I should be writing letters of recommendations, not a eulogy.’”
Anchukaitis has had the opportunity to teach elsewhere for more money, but at the end of the day she was happy at ND-BG.
“We see the excellence in each individual,” she said. “There’s an ethic of service, meeting the needs of others, living in truth and being free to say, ‘I’ll pray for you.’ ”
In retirement, Anchukaitis plans to spend time with her husband as they travel to visit their children. She won’t disappear, however. She plans to take a back-seat role in the musical and mock trial, but be involved nonetheless.
“I know how much I’ll miss the students,” she said.
She may not be in the classroom, but her legacy will continue. At least three of her former students have gone on to become Spanish teachers themselves. Another former student who one time declared he had no use for Spanish, spent years doing mission work in Peru.
“She will be missed,” said Moran.