BY MAJA GAWRONSKA, MA
When Agnes Zhelesnik was eighty-one years old, she decided that it was time to go back to work. At 102, she is now America’s oldest teacher and is still going strong, putting in thirty-five hours a week at the private Sundance School in New Jersey, teaching students from prekindergarten to fifth grade how to cook and sew.
She spent much of her life as a stay-at-home mom to three daughters. One of them, also a teacher, was looking for someone to keep children occupied for the two-hour lunch period when her school staff held meetings. Zhelesnik took the job. At first, it wasn’t supposed to be extensive. Zhelesnik wanted to stay socially connected and get out of the house a little. But she immediately fell in love with teaching kids and embarked on a full-time career.
“It is important to take care of yourself and be happy.”
The middle of five children, Zhelesnik was born in 1914 in Thomas, West Virginia, where her father worked in a coal mine. During the Depression, she had to quit school and at sixteen took a job at a factory. Eventually, she received her high school diploma by attending night school. She got married in 1938.
Her family said that she never complains, even though her life wasn’t always easy. She has lost a child in a car accident and a husband after sixty-one years of marriage. She lived through several recessions and two world wars.
Asked about successful aging, Zhelesnik said that you need a reason for getting up in the morning. “You can’t sit down and do nothing,” she said. “It is important to take care of yourself and be happy. And indulging some good food can be helpful, as well. Good fat is good for the brain.”
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