By Fahiemah Al-Ali, CNN
North Plainfield, New Jersey (CNN) - Stepping into the auditorium of the Sundance School last weekend was like being transported back to another era.
Glen Miller’s big band crooned "Moonlight Serenade" in the background. A dusty pink feather boa draped sequin-adorned chairs. Heart-shaped velvet boxes sat in the center of each table. A striking black-and-white wedding photograph from 1938 was perched proudly on a small wooden table.
It was the school’s way of celebrating the guest of honor – teacher Agnes Zhelesnik, affectionately referred to as “Granny” by her family and students.
The average teacher retirement age is 59, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. It's a marker Zhelesnik has blown past.
She just turned 99.
Agnes Zhelesnik's students celebrated her 99th birthday.
For 60 years, Zhelesnik was a stay-at-home mother and wife. She began teaching part-time at the Sundance School in 1995, when she was 81.
Eventually, she became a full-time teacher at the school, instructing classes on cooking, sewing and costume-making. She still comes to work every day.
“I love them. They’re my best helpers. That’s the only reason why I come here, is the children,” Zhelesnik says, her blue eyes sparkling behind silver metal-framed glasses.
Four generations of Zhelesniks and scores of Sundance staff, parents and alumni – some as young as 8, some as old as 30 – filled the room for the festivities, all with personal stories about spry, slender Granny.
Zhelesnik, who is a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, was born on January 12, 1914. She’s lived through two World Wars, recessions, depressions and was happily married for 61 years before her husband passed away in 1999.
And while many things have changed since her days as a student, Granny says one thing has not.
“Kids are the same. They like to eat. They like to laugh and talk,” she said.
The fun-filled afternoon capped off with an open mic "Granny tribute," which included lively performances by Sundance’s students and alumni, including one by 11-year-old Lucas Schultz, who will soon be touring with a national production of the musical “Mary Poppins.”
Zhelesnik’s 69-year-old daughter, also named Agnes, and also a teacher at the school, tenderly held her mother’s hand as they blew out 99 candles on her birthday cake.
Agnes Arakelian celebrated with her mother, a teacher known as "Granny."
Granny didn’t want gifts; she asked guests to make a donation to her favorite charity, Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, New Jersey. But the school presented Zhelesnik with a surprise – a quilt, with each unique fabric square designed by a Sundance class.
So how much longer does Granny think she’ll continue teaching?
“Till I’m 100,” she laughed. “I feel good enough.”
Her students agree.
“She’s really unique because she still hasn’t retired and she’s a really good cook. And she’s still out and about,” 9-year-old Ryan Rosenthal, a Sundance alum, said.
“And the fact that she’s not in a wheelchair or doesn’t need a cane or something –” his identical twin, Lee, added.
“Or a walker!” Ryan chimed in.
“…is pretty amazing, pretty phenomenal,” Lee finished.
But if you ask Zhelesnik what her secret is, her answer is simple.
“It’s the children. The children are the greatest,” she said. “You know, you have your own, but when it’s these kids, they’re just something else.”
Working Draft: Re: Letter to the President
NOTE: Your constructive input is welcome.
We, the people are deeply concerned about the following, which we request, as we the people, your immediate attention to if at all possible. The reason that we make this immediate request is due to the very real concern for the safety, well-being, and protection from harm of mental patients of all ages, religions, nationalities, gender, race, and ethnicity, etc., and disabilities in light of the recent tragedies that has placed a huge amount of blame on autistic persons, and mandates signed by you that could be construed to violate the rights of the mentally ill and their families.
Historically, the mentally ill have been treated poorly in this country, much like those whom the revered civil rights leaders of our great country challenged all to provide equal opportunity, education, rights, judicial access and fairness of courts, legal systems, education, schools, jobs, housing, health care, etc.. Today, we are asking you to do the same for the mentally ill and their families, communities, and society as a whole (as all could be disabled from mental illness at some point in their lives – and historically – most are).
While the power and politics of the system within which the responsibility for mental health practices, procedures, and policies encompasses many whom benefit and thrive, many of the patients and much of society are made to suffer the greatest of burdens and sorrow because of it.
There are many reasons why so many suffer at the hands of the current mental health system, as you may well know. It is widely considered to be a system of care that is very deeply flawed by those whom are aware of the true realities of the way things really are in the mental health system, and/or the reasons and reasoning as to why the system is so flawed. To ask the patients to suffer through not only their illness, healing, recovery, and management of their illness at the same time that they must also suffer at the hands of this deeply flawed system places an inordinately undue and unhealthy burden and suffering on not only them, but on the whole of society as well.
President Obama, the most obvious need that is not being considered in the last few weeks national affairs, in which you have so immediately made sweeping changes to the rights bestowed upon all of this great nation of independently minded souls, was one of the deep rooted anger that exists in the USA today, be it toward the mentally ill or gun rights issues or whatever. To single either one or whatever out for discrimination in signed action that will, in essence, limit the future and rights of every single citizen of this great nation, only serves to invite further victimization, discrimination and prejudice against all deemed to be or made to be in any group of similarly classified individuals. As outlined in the laws of this land, which you have sworn to uphold, and to which your pledge we honor as you do ours, as a united 'we the people' governed under a respected and trusted unifying law of the land, we humbly ask you to reconsider your recent actions under the same wisdom you value by your honor chosen mentors, and to whom, we thoughtfully agree to their mission of freedom and equality for all.
The restrictions you have placed on the rights of the mentally ill are a closing of the door to the rights you honor with your pledge to defend, honor, and uphold for ALL citizens of the USA. We question the possibility now allowed that many might fall prey to those whom may wish to exploit and / or harm those with disabilities and related, or as ill guided control, or weapon of discrimination and prejudicial policies, practices, and procedures against any made to fall into this category of citizens or deemed to be in this category of citizen. This is now a great burden to all, and places many at further risk of harm, discrimination and prejudice, as you could well imagine given the need for revered leaders and movements throughout the ages.
It is hard to imagine how banning guns can be such a problem, yet forcing the banning of guns on those at the mercy of a mental health system that is not prepared to deal fairly with such power to control, discriminate, and cause harm, exploitation, nor the loss of protected rights throughout the entire system of education, judicial, employment, military, health care, mental health care, security systems and officers, society as a whole and as individuals, families, communities, churches, non-profit groups, universities, the agencies set up to regulate all that can cause mental illness in our foods, water, medicine, practices, procedures, and policies, and ALL can be and ARE AT MERCY of this type illness and treatment without legal representation and supports, and a fair and equal judicial system, that this could truly be ok.
Therefore, we the people, request humbly and with post haste to amend to these signed actions provisions that will allow for the furthering of reasoning throughout all levels of the greatest government system put in place by the people, for the people, and for which we are all pledged to honor and protect and defend as USA citizens of this great and wonderful land of which we know, that you, our chosen leader, will be able to see the wisdom of your forefathers and revered leaders and mentors as being the only true way for our nation to be for the people, by the people. Thank you and God Bless you in your leadership and wisdom as you guide this grand nation through four more years of being a nation built on the wisdom of many.
Sincerely and with Deepest Respect,
'We the People', USA
January 20, 2013
the old saying honor your parents and your days will b long we can learn from our older peolpe if our youth slow down and shut up i don't know why people think when you get 2 be getting on in years that u should be resting i say you go granny
ok to this "unemployed" person.... i went to this school when i was younger and I can still remember how much everyone loved Granny. If she retired it would devastate the school. Shes not just some old lady reading stories to kids, she makes all the costumes for every play (which is what this school is all about) and she teaches children from a young age about cooking and cleaning and sewing while infusing life lessons that some 25 year old graduate would have no clue about yet. This particular school has an atmosphere that is irreplaceable and Granny is a major part of that. She will always have a special place in my heart and I've been graduated from that school for years now.....so people please get your facts right before posting ignorant things....oh and Happy Birthday Granny! <3
My niece has been going to the Sundance School for 4 years now. Granny is a lovely person. She makes the costumes for all of the school plays. The kids absolutely adore her. She really is one of a kind.
My mother is 75, almost 76, and has been teaching every year since 1977 and before that she taught for several years before going to write math textbooks for Scott Foresman in Chicago in the late 60's. She teaches Advanced Math and AP Calculus to High School students. Our schools need more people like these teachers! I am glad Mrs. Zhelesnik's school values her and her age. For those who think older people don't need their jobs, you are wrong. My mother helped my father through 12 years of Alzheimers, all the while retaining her teaching position and caring about each student every day of the school year. Alzheimers can kill a family's financial stability and my mother has needed her employment. Glad there are teachers and schools like this!
May God bless this kind, caring woman!! Wow, still making it real for these kids, 99 years!!! A true quality person!!!
@ unemployed. Get a job on your own. There's plenty out there, if you just put in the effort to look for them. As someone who is "voluntarily unemployed", like someone said earier, I'd hope to be someone like this woman! She should be an inspiration to the world, regardless of her age, though it is impressive that @ 99 she's still going strong. I could only hope to be like her if I ever reach anywhere close to her age. :) Happy Birthday Granny! May there be many more in your future
Happy Birthday! Always great to see a story about someone making a positive impact on the world!
@ unemployed go work at a club!
You go, Granny! Happy Birthday! You are never to old to teach and as long there is life and breath in your body you should be able to do whatever you want as long as you want, especially valuable things such as teaching. How would you feel, unemployed, if someone made you give up what you loved doing because of your age? And supposed she retires and the the teacher that takes her place sucks at it or is a child molester. Go back to school and learn something your damn self and get employeed. i'm unemployed and there are no jobs here so i am is school for nursing, an in demand career. you don't see me granny-bashing...smdh
It's a shame this grouchy guy with the 'unemployed' handle came in and spewed anger all over this nice little tory about an old lady who keeps working because he likes being around the kids. I guess no matter what a story is about, it will tick off SOMEONE.
Maybe if Unemployed spent less time on here commenting and more time on indeed or career builder. The name could be changed to EMPLOYED!!! :)
And our government is trying now to make everyone work longer, and retire later so they don't have to pay pensions as long. At least in Illinois. No more early retirement and talks of making people teach to 67. I wouldn't want most 67 year olds teaching my kids.
Too bad this wonderful article about a wonderful citizen and those who love her is tainted by the grouch.
She and har daughter have found the fountain of youth, they both look 25 years younger.
They have found the fountain of youth. Her daughter doesn't look 69 either. WOW
Congratulations Granny! my own grandmother lived until she was 99 1/2 and was still active in her churchs soup kitchen and clothing drives. it kept her mind sharp and made her happy. live and let live.
I'd imagine not retiring might have helped her reach her 99th birthday. There are a lot of people who become very inactive in their old age, leading to both mental and physical deterioration.
Some may think these schools are being paranoid, but every time a school is successfully sued for not having every single possible safety hazard accounted for, even if there was little or nothing the school could have reasonably done, it will only continue.
Oops, wrong article, mods please delete... sorry!
I'm not an American, but from what I've gathered, Americans usually are big on the idea of something called "fundamental freedoms", such as life, liberty, and something called the "pursuit of happiness". So what's this about how a 99 year old with a job should retire? What happened to her fundamental freedoms? Or do some Americans let their ideals go out the window when they are hard up for cash?
A real lady to emulate. Great story...thanks.
Well, I don't think I would want to be a teach at 99, even if I could, but happy birthday and best wishes.
If you think she should give up her job because she 'doesn't need it' then shouldn't by that same logic, all people who are well off quit their jobs to open up positions for the unemployed? Should Opera and Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and Tom Cruise and Peyton Manning quit their jobs too. I'm sure there are plenty of unemployed aspiring actors, financial whizzes, computer geniuses and athletes who are just waiting for a position to open? At what point does a person reach the status of "well enough off" that they should give up their job to someone who "who really needs it"????
That's good. Plan Obamerica includes having all of us work to 99
My great-aunt is 97 right now. She's a beautiful soul. I just saw her this summer. I hope I see her again. Nothing wrong with her – my great-aunt Doris. She's in great shape – she uses a walker. Her house is all on one floor and they've made simple modifications. She could probably use a new kitchen. I think it's incredible this woman is so close to my great-aunt's age. And she and her daughter do look beautiful and very with it. It's unfortunate we didn't count on people living this long – so sometimes resources become scarce. This woman does need the job – because everyone needs to be needed. People's number one reason for coming to work is the friends (the people, in her case the students) and the number two reason is the work – they want to feel fulfilled. The salaries can very. Bosses are important. But the number one reason is always wanting to feel useful. People who retire sometimes can remain feeling useful. Kudos for them – those who can enjoy their Golden years. But some should never retire. After all once your significant other has gone, children are raised, you've outlived all your animals and most of your friends what's left – the new ones you meet in a vocation or avocation. No never really retire – just go on to that second, third or fourth career – whatever it may be.
Dang! Neither she nor her daughter look their ages! How cool is that?! Those kids are lucky to have her, and she them.
Go, Granny, GO! Granny go go go!
I hope she's still able to work, and will continue at this same school if so, past her answer of 100 :)
God Bless Her!
I love this story and the fact that this lady is still vibraint and contributing to these children at her age. I am sure many of those kids have never met a person who has so much life experience. The lessons she is teaching the children she comes into contact with daily go far beyond cooking, cleaning and sewing. Thanks Miss Granny for all you are doing and I hope you live to be 120!
unemployed needs a life! volunteer somewhere if you are that bitter!!!!!
how's your financial life?
Happy Birthday Granny! Besh Wishes for many more!
YEA GRANNY & GOOD LUCK TO YOU. HAPPY BIRTHDAY :-)
She is so right about the kids. My teaching assistant position was eliminated during district wide cutbacks. I miss those kids every day. They keep you sharp and young. Look at Agnes and Agnes!
She looks great for 99. And her daughter doesn't look close to being 69.
she needs to retire, and let someone who actually needs a job have the position.
Why should they? She's good at what she does. Leave her alone.
because she needs to retire and let someone who actually needs a job have the position.
@Unemployed–I sure wouldn't want you teaching my kids, making a judgment call as to who needs a job and who doesn't. I'm sure you are making your obnoxious comment based solely on her age. As crabby as you are-you certainly don't deserve to be as blessed at Granny,
Granny should do her community a service and volunteer her time and allow some unemployed certified teacher in her district put food on her/his table. Teachers have mouths to feed, too.
Do you even have a clue how many elderly people live in poverty and can't make ends meet? Many can't even afford their medications... I commend her for taking care of herself and not living off the system just because she can. You're a bitter, nasty person.
the article gives no indication that granny is hurting for money. if that's her situation, by all means keep working, granny! but this article paints it up as a novelty. the benefit of having a full-time job is NOT a novelty. i'm willing to bet most people championing for granny are employed. those of you unemployed, i would expect to agree with me.
this granny doesn't need this job.
when they find someone "who actually needs a job" who has her SKILLS
maybe she can retire
I am 55, unemployed, about to be foreclosed because I NEED the job and am tired of encountering 20 year old know-nothings who do not care to even bother to learn the job skills required to earn their paycheck. Incompetence everywhere!
years do not necessarily = skills.
you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about
do you have a job?
And at what age would you force retirement on the elderly. I'm glad a person with your character is NOT teaching!
i'm willing to bet you are employed. or don't need to be.
Wow aren't we in a bad mood today, taking out our unemployment blues on a 99 year old School Teacher. Well she goes to work everyday for a full day. How many hours have you spent in the last week looking for a job or preparing yourself for a job? It is the middle of the day so what are you doing playing at the computer instead of job hunting? I don't know why nor how long you have been unemployed, but, I know there are jobs out there for those willing to take them. I am 77 years old and retired at 71, and, never had an unemployed day in my life. I did have to move around the country but I stayed employed with the same outfit for 47 1/2 years by going where they had work for me. I know people recently, this past year, who were laid of from god jobs and found new ones within 4 weeks, Yes one a female that was 65 years old. I wrote her a letter of recommendation to a company I was not familiar with, they in turn hired her and wanted me to come in for an interview as well, at 76 years old. We both worked in the Computer field. There are jobs for the willing. Yes Year many times equal skills, but not always as some will never put in the real effort to get those skills, just play along day after day and then wonder why they wake up one morning unemployed. I truly feel sorry for you since you just don't seem to get the fact that you must make your own breaks in life and not blame someone else for having made their own way. This fine lady has made her own and along the way helped probably thousands of others find their way. God Bless Granny. I hope you find a job soon.
i am the unemployed millions in this country. don't talk to me like i'm a single human. i am the over-skilled and underpaid adults of the united states. your response is tedious and defensive.
Perhaps there are Millions of Unemployed that agree with you but there Millions of others that disagree. Many people that are unemployed because they want to be! Yes, I Know that is a broad statement and does not apply to many others. There are also many that remain unemployed because they price themselves out of the market. They may be unemployed due to no fault of their own, but, they still need to analyze the why of it, maybe the type of job they used to do just is not in demand anymore. What are they doing to upgrade their skills? The truly ambitious of the world will find a way to market themselves and move forward not sit and wait for the Govt. to extend unemployment benefits.
This is about Granny, not the unemployed, Granny represents that which is good in America, she is a big sign post that says, "Look, I can do it so why can't you?" Heck, if you read the article you would notice that she did not start working out of the home until she was 81 years old. Most people would just say "I am too old to compete with the younger folks" and sit back in a rocking chair to die, but Not Granny, she got up and went to work. She is a shinning light for her students. The Unemployed should take a page out of her book of life and learn how to cope with life.
There is an obvious reason why your still "unemployed"...Karma...
I agree with you on this one, Karma can be a $$$$$, just make sure that Aunt Flo isnt visiting "unemployed". Jealousy wont get you anywhere "unemployed", Karma will walk all over you again and again if you are.
I bet Pete's got a nice, cushy 401k
also there is no such thing as Karma. or god.
hey unemployed? Jw are you even a teacher? If not, then what would it even matter to you in the first place if GRANNY if still TEACHING? If you can't read a story on someone else's hard work and dedication without being a bitter jerk and having to bash her, then I suggest you should take a look at yourself. Work and yourself and doing things with your OWN life instead of being jealous of OTHERS! You can't always have things YOUR WAY and in this world you obviously have to EARN your keeps. In my opinion you need to stop sounding like a snobby little brat and appreciate other people. If you can't handle that then your even more pathetic then you made yourself sound.
am i correct that you are of the sentiment that "unemployed people should just go get a job?" would you put that on a bumper sticker? would you wear that on a t-shirt?
Actually no, you in fact are incorrect. What I am saying is you have no room to sit there and say that she, or anyone for that matter, shouldn't be working there. You sit there and complain about unemployment but yet say that this woman should not have that job. If they fired Granny to give her job to somone else, then that would in fact leave HER unemployed. Pretty hypocritical statement on your part. We all get it that it is hard to get a job, but just because it's not easy doesn't mean you should take someone else's job for your own well-being.
If this article would have said 'school celebrates teachers 49th birthday', would you have even bothered to leave your nasty self-centered comments? My guess is no, becuase I don't see you bashing jobs in other articles on here, leading me to think its because she is 99. With that being said, aren't you discriminating against, not only the working people, but also elderly? Making you no different from type of people that, and let me phrase this right, "are of the setiment that "unemployed people should just go get a job". Only difference you are saying 'elderly people shouldn't work because they are old'. Now let me ask you 'unemployed', would YOU put THAT on a BUMPER STICKER? Would YOU wear THAT on a t-shirt?
Are you bitter cause you can teach?
Maybe she actually needs the job.
unemployed you should be thinking twice about what you are saying. My mother and father are 60 adn 85 respectively They have both worked their entire lives and have never been unemployed. However, even after years of working due to health issues that they both have faced they are unable to retire. The only reason my father is not working is due to the fact he has fallen twice in the past six months and was no longer able to stand in front of a classroom everyday and TEACH. This leaves my mother, who should be considering retirement soon, left to pay all the bills, a plight many people face. She is also a teacher and in addition to teaching full time at an elementary school, is now teaching GED classes at night.
Teachers are some of the most underpaid workers in our country. It is not a 9-5 job where you leave your work at the office. My parents constantly worked nights, weekends etc to ensure that they taught their students to the best of their ability. Their retirement benefits are also not nearly as good as individuals who work for corporations etc. Have you considered that the article never said what her late husband did? Perhaps he was working up until 1995 and was taken ill? What if the company he worked for went bankrupt and they lost all their retirement?
Consider all the facts before you make a judgement.
You should not be judging this woman because she is 99 and does not "need" to work. If you saw my parents on the street you would not think that they "needed" to work, but they do. And they are GOOD at what they do and love it. My father taught until this past May, and throughout his entire teaching career had students requesting his classes.
**And before you make some smart ass comment about how as their child I should be helping them or whatever you want to say, consider the fact that at my job I currently work 70 hours a week, and am working to pay off my student loans. To be honest, you call yourself unemployed, but my employer is constantly hiring. I'm pretty sure if you invested the amount of time in looking for a job that you did responding to all these posts you probably would have solved your problem of unemployment.
By this same argument you should then give up your job (if you had one) to a less fortunate someone from a third world country...I think your comments et al are absurd and unsupported. I applaud this lady for continuing to make a positive contribution in the world.
How do you know she doesn't need the job? The article mentions nothing about her financial status at all. For all you know the money she makes teaching is what pays her bills. She has just as much of a right to earn a living as you do, but she is willing to go out and get a job. Maybe instead of being online unemployed, you should be out looking for a job. McDonald's Wendy's and Taco Bell are hiring.
What an uplifting story! This woman is a hero – she is showing people that just because you have lived a certain length of time does not mean that you can't contribute to society. She is sharing her love with the kids, and teaching them life skills. Way to go Granny! My best to you.
Unemployed, you could learn something from Granny. Get out and find something YOU like to do, and turn it into a job. No one handed her anything – she EARNED it. You can do the same. No one is stopping you but yourself.
You need blessing too. It is sad that you can't appreciate hard work when someone else does it.
So, your philosophy is that everyone who is of retirement age should retire? Who are you to tell other people what to do with their lives or how to live them? What a miserable and grumpy person you are.
Good luck to granny. I admire and envy her.
CNN’s Schools of Thought blog is a place for parents, educators and students to learn about and discuss what's happening in education. We're curious about what's happening before kindergarten, through college and beyond. Have a story to tell? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org