The Next Step

Tomorrow I’ll be driving my child to college for the start of what I still call his freshman year. His college calls him a ‘first year,’ very Harry Potter-ish.
An event like this causes me to look back over the high and low notes of his schooling and I realize that his experience encompasses some of the he best and some of the worst in American education.

His public school life started in an unusually public way. His class was the class filmed for the HBO serial documentary Kindergarten. It can still be seen,12 years later, mornings on the HBO Family channel. He’s the really tall, very articulate kid, but if you watch the show, pay attention to the teacher. Ms. Johnson, now a middle school English teacher, was the first of a string of incredible teachers Jonas had through elementary school.

His first grade teacher, Ms. Pakaln, made home visits. When we had her over for dinner she remained focused on her student despite parental efforts to engage her in adult conversation. That waited until the boy went to bed.

Mrs. Schwartz, his second grade teacher, really got him. Jonas was much taller, far more verbal, and almost totally uninterested in sports, Pokemon or any of the other things the boys favored and, as a result, he had very few friends. He would regularly get teased by the 4th and 5th graders in the playground who thought he was their age and in 2nd grade because he was a slow learner. Mrs. Schwartz engaged Jonas in conversations and assured us that his social life would blossom in high school when he found others like himself. She was absolutely right.

During the year Jonas was in second grade I started substitute teaching in his district to see if I really wanted to become a teacher. I loved substituting for Mrs. Schwartz even though it embarrassed Jonas, but I especially enjoyed subbing in the second grade inclusion class in one of the other district schools. The next year, when those special ed students moved to Jonas’ school my wife and I arranged for Jonas to be in the inclusion class.

It was inclusion done the way it should be done; two of the best teachers in the school, Mrs. King and Mrs. Greenwald, both certified in general and special education, teaching all the students. When one was teaching the other was at a big table in the back where any student could go for extra help, and both general ed and special ed students took advantage of the assistance. Jonas befriended most of the special ed students, explaining that they were as different as he was, only in a different way. Smart kid.

In fourth grade Jonas had his first male teacher, Joe Galantich, a magnificent teacher, especially of social studies which became Jonas’ favorite subject. Joe also got Jonas who, by this time, was reading at the high school level. They would discuss books, especially the Legend of Sleepy Hollow which seemed to obsess Jonas.

Fifth grade was the first disappointment. His second male teacher was a rookie and much more of a jock. I strongly suspected that Jonas had already read more books than his teacher had.

Middle school was even more of a disappointment via the 7th grade social studies teacher who taught the most exciting period in American history, the Revolution and founding of the nation, through textbook readings and worksheets. That was offset by the wise-cracking Mr. Wisner, the 8th grade history teacher (“I teach history, [bleeping] social studies is for [bleep, bleep] wimps”) who somehow never bought his teacher lounge profanity into the classroom but still made the kids feel like they were being let in on some adult-world secrets.

Ms. McGillicuty, the exceptionally skilled 6th grade math teacher, helped Jonas overcome his prior struggles so he could earn his first A in the subject. It would also be his last as the following year he returned to his more usual low Bs and high Cs in math.

Our district is known for its very strong arts program and the middle school art teacher stood out as one the best of those three years. Ms. Mahan’s streaked hair, feathered earrings and tattoos taught him and us that great teachers come in all kinds of packages.

It’s funny how I remember the names of all of Jonas’ elementary school teachers but only the names of the few good ones from his middle school experience.

High school proved 2nd grade Mrs. Schwartz right, Jonas’ social life blossomed. He had too many good teachers to name them all but two or three stand out.

It took a school trip to France for Madame Pence to get Jonas who, at one point, exasperated us even more than his low grade had by proclaiming, “of course I don’t do well in French, I don’t speak the language.” pointing to his excellent English marks as proof of his contention. On that trip, Mrs. Pence and Jonas were equally astounded that he emerged as the main translator for his classmates as they wandered independently in Paris. His functional French was far better than what he was able to show in the class quizzes and exams. His confidence rose so much that he has chosen to continue studying French as part of his college program.

Jonas’ high school English experience started off with a teacher who gave his honors class the following homework assignment: “Make a list of all the characters in Hamlet.” That’s it. A list. No thinking required. To his credit, Jonas refused to do the assignment, pointing out to his teacher, probably more politely than I would have at his age, that Hamlet, like every other play, had a cast list at the beginning. The rest of the year did not get much better.

Fortunately, that was the worst of it. His other English teachers stoked the intellectual fire somehow still burning in him.

Simona Moldovan was Jonas’ 11th grade English teacher as well as staff advisor to the drama club in which Jonas became very active. She engaged him in high-level conversations that thrilled him but frequently left the rest of the class far behind. She is particularly responsible for my son’s professional ambition; in a parent-teacher meeting she told my wife and I that his becoming an English teacher “would be the greatest repayment I could make to my profession.”

The other especially positive English teacher was the one he had this past year. Thomas Burns, arranged to have Jonas teach all the 12th grade sections a lesson his and Jonas jointly prepared. When the hoped-for discussion failed to materialize as anticipated during its first iteration, Mr. Burns said “welcome to your first first-period class, Jonas. If you want to be a teacher you’ll need to get used to this.” Mr. Burns also helped steer Jonas to his alma mater, SUNY New Paltz.

SUNY New Paltz

Jonas starts there tomorrow and I haven’t seen him as jazzed about school since the first day of kindergarten.

A big thank you to all of Jonas’ teachers. Whether remarkably good or remarkably mediocre, you helped him become the confident, articulate, socially conscious and well-rounded person he is.

I can let him go tomorrow knowing he’ll make some mistakes, screw up at times, and be better for the experience because despite occasional struggles and the few inept teachers, his love of learning is intact and he will soak up knowledge everywhere and from everyone.

A chip off the old block, he is.


20 Responses to The Next Step

  1. william tushman says:

    Jonas seems like an extraordinary young man. He is very lucky to have exceptional parents, and, i’m guessing, a pretty amazing aunt. Good luck to him, as he starts the next phase of his education, both academically and in life.

  2. catrina jordan says:

    do you have any updates on the other students in the class, pictures, I watch that show every morning, email is

  3. Michele Ybarra says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I’m a first grade teacher and avid watcher of the Kindergarten series re-runs. I’ve always wanted to know what became of the kids in the series. (I wish they would have done a follow-up!) Jonas always stood out in the show as he was clearly verbally advanced! It’s great to hear he’s doing so well!

    • Deven Black says:

      Thanks, Michele. Several of the parents were pushing gently for a follow-up but HBO wasn’t interested and the producers wouldn’t do it without HBO funding it. Jonas stood out in more ways than one, he was also twice as tall as most of the others.

  4. Sharon P says:

    My son (Nat) was also in the Kindergarten show, and I found your blog when I was googling information about the show. Even without HBO’s involvement, it would be fun to have a reunion of the kids and parents! We moved away after that year, but I’m so grateful to have that documentation of his kindergarten year. Would love to hear from you if you are still in touch with some of the other parents or have a way of possibly reuniting these kids!

    • Deven Black says:

      Hi Sharon,

      I am still in touch with some of the parents but have not talked with them about a reunion. As they are off at college it is harder and harder to coordinate something like that. I will ask around and if there is interest I will get back to you.


  5. Nicole says:

    I’d love an update as well. I’ve been watching the series with each of my four children as they were in kindergarten.

  6. Kristen says:

    Please encourage the reunion! My first grader and I are sitting here watching my 14 year old’s favorite episode about the butterflies…a little critically because a few times they referred to cocoons and not chrysalis! It’s all good though! They just showed Jonas and my little one says, “that’s the guy I like…he’s smart.” Maybe connecting with the families or kids on facebook is a thought… That’s how my former students find me!

  7. Cheryl says:

    I’m a Kindergarten through 2nd grade looping teacher. I’m blessed to travel with my class to each grade level. After I cycle back to Kindergarten, I watch the series over and over. Rewatching Kindergarten helps remind me of the simplicity in the kids thought process since it’s drastically different from a 2nd grader. Over the past ten years, I’ve wondered how the kids are doing. I enjoyed this article that chronicled Jonas’ experience through grade school. I would also love to see a reunion. Not just a reunion, I’d love that we could see the day in the life of many of the young faces we’ve grown to love.

  8. nancy g says:

    may God bless all of the kids and their parents and siblings. I feel strongly that most of these kids will become excellent leaders in all walks of life thanks to the wonderful experience which kick started them from Ms.Johnson’s Kindergarten class

    • Yajaira says:

      Hello Guys,

      I use to watched the show when I was 7 years old every morning. I’m So glad and proud of Jonas. I wanted to know what happened to the others??? Where are they ???

  9. Cajun knapp says:

    I enjoy the show kindergarten can you tell me what happen to rest of your kindergarten class?

  10. Lauri Fay says:

    This was very interesting to read! I have caught the Kindergarten series from time to time by accident and think it is fabulous! The kids are adorable and the teacher is fabulous! My own daughter is about your son’s age. She was in Kindergarten during the 2000-2001 school year. She is currently a college Sophomore. My daughter is majoring in Early Childhood/Elementary Education and English. She is also considering adding a Special Education minor. I have actually been in search of the Kindergarten series’ DVDs if such a thing exists. Do you know where I can purchase them? I think they would make a great Christmas present for my daughter. Any help is appreciated!

    • Deven Black says:

      As far as I know the Kindergarten series has never been released for purchase in any form. You might check with HBO to see if you can get a copy. Best of luck to your daughter in her career.

    • Carolyn Lednum says:

      If you search “Kindergarten HBO” on Amazon, you can find videos, but apparently they haven’t released them on DVD. Weird that they are still airing it, but they haven’t re-released since that first year…

  11. J says:

    I would LOVE to see a “where are they now” for the kids on HBO’s kindergarten! I just was watching it this morning and thinking, I wonder what ever happened to these kids?! I hope that this could happen sometime soon!

  12. Joanna says:

    I am a third grade teacher and a parent. My daughter and I LOVE watching re-runs of the Kindergarten show. It’s nice to have something appropriate to watch with her. Thank you. We enjoy watching the children. I would love to see a follow up show and know the children, now young adults are doing well. Have you considered approaching other channels for a follow up show? Best regards to your children.

  13. Nameless says:

    Perhaps a kickstarter campaign to get a reunion documentary funded both for production and scholarship opportunities. Plenty of people would be willing to contribute.

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