Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Sundance Kid

The Star-Ledger had a story in Monday's edition about a rather remarkable teacher named Agnes Zhelesnik.  Here in the State of Concrete Gardens much has been written by and about teachers during the past year and one-half or so.  Much of it, irrespective of one's position and/or level of interest in the ongoing battle between the NJEA and the GUV, has been laden with vitriol.  It is as if when the rest of us had our eyes elsewhere, someone amended the 3R's and replaced all of them with, "Rhetoric, Rhetoric, Rhetoric."

Not so Monday's piece on Agnes Zhelesnik.  She is apparently the oldest American full-time teacher.  What is so extraordinary about that distinction?  She is 97.  I was tempted to write "years old" after 97 but after reading the profile of her, that last word is not only superfluous but inaccurate.  If there is one thing Agnes Zhelesnik is not, it is old.   She has been at the teaching biz for only a decade and a half, an amount of time that might seem lengthy in and of itself but given that this fifteen year veteran of our State's blackboard jungle was born five and one half months before Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on the streets of Sarajevo, a little context is necessary.  Perhaps if you have ever been a student of Agnes Zhelesnik then you already know the historical signficance of that event

Actually, according to the article, while history is among the many things that interest her, Agnes earns her living teaching pre-school at the Sundance School in North Plainfield, which counts among its distinguished alums my brother-in-law Frank who is - much like Agnes - one hell of a multi-tasker.  He is not only a phenomenal chef but he can sing more than a little.  (Do not cheat yourself, click on the link and before you work up an appetite checking out all of the incredible stuff Frank can make for you, put your mouse on him in the upper right corner of the home page and listen to him sing a little bit for you).  I shall wait for you.  Having had the pleasure of listening to him sing and eating his cooking for close to two decades now, I now how enjoyable each is.  When you are ready, read on (or just click back on Frank's site and order tonight's dinner.  More pleasure from the latter than the former - of that I am certain).  Actually it is Frank's son Frankie who attended the Sundance School and given that he is a high school senior presently, he might actually have been one of her students and since you have to eat anyway....

I actually saw the piece on Agnes Zhelesnik on-line on Monday and I looked at the photos of her prior to reading the article.  The headline gave her age so I knew it before I started to look at the photos.  After looking at the photos I found it almost impossible to believe that she is almost 100 years old.  She appears (to my eye anyway) to be at least a couple of decades younger than her stated age.

From time to time, it is nice to come across a person - even if the contact is only tangential such as through reading about her in a newspaper article - who appears to brighten the lives of those around her and the orbit they all inhabit together by doing nothing other than that which makes her happy.  She is not merely a happy person.  She is a carrier of joy and happiness and she spreads it all around her every day, teaching children who are only nine and one-half decades younger than she is.  Generation gap?  Think again.  One look at the photos of her surrounded by and interacting with her children reveals only one gap:  the one present in some of their mouths courtesy of as-of-yet-unreplaced baby teeth that have fallen out, which is delightfully easy to see given their ear-to-ear grins. 

A nice piece of writing about a woman whose most remarkable quality is that she does not view herself as remarkable but merely as Agnes - doing something she loves for those that she loves.  And doing something that hopefully she will be able to continue to do for years to come. 

Undoubtedly her best years are still ahead of her.


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