This is one in a series of stories at The Seventy Four which spotlights the heroes, victories and random acts of kindness to be found at schools all across America. Read more recent coverage at The74million.org/series/inspiring.
(North Plainfield, New Jersey) — Every Wednesday around 11 in the morning, a group of 5-year-olds wash their hands, put on their aprons and gather excitedly around a kidney-shaped table inside the kitchen classroom at The Sundance School in North Plainfield, New Jersey.
At the center of the hustle is their teacher, Agnes Zhelesnik, whom the children affectionately call Granny. At 102 years old (she celebrates her birthday Tuesday), she is arguably the oldest employed teacher in America — and one who did not even enter the field until age 80. The Seventy Four spent several days in December visiting with granny:
“I just love it here,” she says as she ties the last child’s apron and gives them a gentle tap to indicate that it’s time to return to their seat. Granny, who teaches cooking and sewing classes with a co-teacher, has been at the school since 8 a.m. preparing the ingredients for today’s lesson. She got a ride to school with her 72-year-old daughter, also Agnes, and also a teacher at Sundance.
While most schools around the country abandoned home ec some time ago, Granny is emphatic in advocating for its usefulness.
“This is something that they’re going to use for the rest of their lives; they’re not going to have it just for today,” she says. “You’ll be surprised how they are going to remember it when they get older, or even as a mother.”
The smell of fresh-baked cookies wafts through the walls, while the sound of violins can be heard just a few classrooms away. Weekly cooking and music classes are just a few of the many unique offerings at this arts-infused, pre-K-5 private elementary school, where even young kindergartners move about the building changing classes.
“We are really swimming upstream,” says the school’s principal, W.J. O’Reilly, who stops by the kitchen to say hello to the children and pick up his own brown paper bag full of treats. No sooner does he turn to go then Granny is quickly back at the table helping 6-year-old Max measure a teaspoon of vanilla extract to add to the dough mixture. O’Reilly lingers for another minute in the doorway to marvel at Granny with the children.
“There are messages in education,” he says, and “when I see her at nearly 102 with 3-year-olds and interacting in this way, I can’t even begin to understand the profundity of that kind of interaction.”
All at once, the children call out Granny’s name for help as they struggle to roll their dough. She moves with the zest of a woman half her age as she helps them maneuver their hands alongside the rolling pins.
“Some say that the only way the generations get a chance to spend time together is through poverty,” O’Reilly says. “Here we have the luxury of her presence at all times.”
With no plans of retiring anytime soon, Granny is an ever-present force at the lively school. “This is happiness for me,” Granny says, and “I don’t get tired when I’m happy.”