Natalie Morales reflects on following the Class of 2020 from kindergarten to today

The concept was a TODAY first: document the stories of about 20 children and their families over the course of more than a decade.
/ Source: TODAY

It was the first day of kindergarten and there were plenty of jitters for both 5-year-old Lauren Notarianni and her mother. Notarianni's mom gave her a nutritious breakfast, words of encouragement and then handed her daughter a small box. Inside was a beautiful silver heart necklace. Notarianni's mom was wearing the matching necklace and told her daughter this way she would always be close to her heart and would be safe. She dropped her daughter off at school into the loving embrace of Mrs. Tepper’s kindergarten class. A little kiss goodbye to mom and a touch of the heart amulet around her neck, Notarianni was ready for her journey.

That was 13 years ago and the beginning of our Class of 2020 project. The concept was a TODAY first: document the stories of about 20 children and their families over the course of more than a decade.

We found a wonderful and diverse community at Colfax Elementary School in North Hollywood, California, along with many willing parents who believed in our mission. Their children were born a year after 9/11, and the world as we all knew it was changing quickly. The boogeyman then had a name, Osama Bin Laden, and the world at large was chaotic. Our mission was to capture history through very young eyes as we watched these kids grow up — our cameras along for much of the ride capturing many important and heartwarming moments, along with some tough ones.

And little did we know that this story would be concluding in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. What a remarkable set of events they’ve seen as again we are defining life in this “new normal.”

History unfolding

Natalie Morales with the Colfax Elementary School kindergarten class.TODAY

They witnessed war and peace. The dot-com bubble had burst, but the technological revolution was truly just beginning. The internet saw the rise of Google and YouTube, and social media exploded to become the dominant form of interaction among teens.

Hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis forewarned the climate change crisis was at hand. Our Class of 2020 celebrated history in 2008 as America elected its first black president. After an economic boom then came the crash. In 2008 and 2009 the economy nearly collapsed, a recession hit and our Class of 2020 saw the devastating impact as some parents lost jobs and were forced to move and start over.

Sadly, tragedy has become part of this generation’s “normal.” School shootings seemed to happen almost weekly as our kids learned then what “shelter-in-place” meant.

A grim and remarkable statistic: Two of our original class of 20 have been directly impacted by school shootings - one just last November where two students were killed and three wounded by a fellow student gunman in Los Angeles.

Both these traumatic shooting incidents could have our graduates asking, “What is the world coming to?”

Still, the biggest story, perhaps of their lifetime, was looming. In March, during what is typically a high point for seniors as they look forward to senior prom, await college acceptances and make plans for their future, COVID-19 hit — effectively shutting down the world and the economy and putting some of our Class of 2020’s plans on pause.

We were lucky in our timing as we assembled much of the original class a few days before their schools were closed. Bringing them back to Colfax and Mrs. Tepper’s Kindergarten class, I marveled, as did their teacher, at just how much the kids have changed.

All grown up

Morales reunites with some of the members of that original kindergarten class.TODAY

Under some new facial hair and makeup I could still see the little sparkle of the 5–year-olds I once knew.

However, gone is the shy little Eileen Garcia, who was afraid to raise her hand in class. Now she is a confident student who got a full scholarship to SMU where she hopes to become an engineer or scientist.

Noah Shields, who was adopted along with his brother by his two dads, is still a bit shy but has found himself through athletics and soccer.

Carlos Cisneros, whose parents immigrated from Mexico, is going to make us proud as he serves his country as a U.S. Marine.

Zenzele Ysaquirre, already an accomplished student filmmaker, is headed to USC’s prestigious film school. Three others of the class also hope to pursue the arts and are filmmakers in their own right including Owen Galicia, Jack Shank and Ruby Farley. Farley actually got her GED early and has been working in the theater and film for the last year.

Zachary Lawler, whose mom is still Colfax’s school psychologist, is interested perhaps in following in his mother’s footsteps. And Dylan, who knows first-hand the difference teachers can make, plans to become an English teacher and wants to have a positive impact on young lives as they prepare for their own future.

Katherine Ting, Kanan Rivera, Matthew Osorio, Alex Rayburn and Caroline Andrews — each member of the class has found a way through challenges and triumphs. They feel pressure now more than ever to make a difference in the world.

One student I had particularly looked forward to seeing again was Kieran Best, who always had an engaging personality and way of looking at the world, even at the age of 5. All of his classmates were disappointed when he could not join us for the reunion interview and remember him well. I caught up with Best over Zoom just this past week and to hear and see him now gave me the greatest joy and hope for our future.

Best was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of 3. At Colfax, he was mainstreamed with all the other kids in the class and had a teacher’s aide always by his side to help him. Best was very popular, especially with the girls. He was always super affectionate, lovable and so highly intelligent. Yet he could also be disruptive and sometimes would bolt out of the classroom with his teacher’s aide and our camera crew following.

I remember sitting with him on the carpet in kindergarten and he told me he loved to read. I asked, "What do you love reading?" His answer, “The dictionary.” Best has grown up from reading the dictionary and is now quoting Voltaire. He remembers his friends very well at Colfax (he named all the girls!) and credits his education and his parents for always allowing him to be himself with no labels. In fact, he didn’t really know he was on the spectrum until recently, because his parents did not want him to be defined by it. He still loves literature and the arts, enjoys traveling and is already a gifted graphic artist.

I asked Best his thoughts about the challenges we all face now and the impact they have on the Class of 2020 as they live through another historic moment. His answer was a good history lesson reminding me of all that we have endured over the last 100 years, but through it all, he said, humanity has prevailed, and community and our relationships are what make us human. How right he is!

The power of community

As parents we all know, perhaps now more than ever, how much that proverbial village binds us, lifts us up, and, yes, protects us and our children. The community at Colfax no doubt planted the seeds for our Class of 2020’s success, but ultimately they create their own village to help them through the things we cannot.

As much as we would love to Bubble Wrap our kids from all that scares us, it's in the challenging times that we can experience the greatest growth. As for Lauren Notarianni, she is already hard at work on a business degree having graduated high school early. I asked her if she still has that silver heart necklace her mom gave her on that first day when we met her. She told me, she does, but doesn’t really wear it as much now.

A personal thank you

I have to thank so many people for this wonderful series. As I have watched my own kids grow up (Class of 2022 and 2027), this project has been an eye-opener and always a good primer for what to expect.

First, to our Los Angeles Bureau Senior Producer, Audrey Grady, who initially pushed for me to do this series and has continued to support it over these last 13 years.

To Curtis Vogel, who initially conceived of the series and produced it for many years; he still remains in contact with so many of our Class of 2020 families even though he is now working elsewhere. This wouldn’t have happened without his passion and commitment.

To producer Lauren Ina valiantly picked up over the last few months along with Alexis Holliday, working their way through volumes of tape and archival material and getting back in touch with all the families that we could.

To Mrs. Tepper, who still teaches kindergarten at Colfax after more than 35 years — she is what every parent hopes for as they drop their child off for the first time at school; a calm, comforting presence who believes in the potential of every child.

To the Colfax Community, a huge thank you for letting our cameras into the classroom to follow your kids and for believing in our mission. And to the parents of our Class of 2020 students, thank you for being that village and for raising exceptional human beings who I feel honored to know.

I hope you all look back on this in 2030 and remember how far your kids have come!