When aspiring graduate student Molly Waterman sat down for her Bank Street admissions interview, she found herself face to face with her beloved kindergarten and first-grade teacher, Abigail Kerlin, who is now Bank Street’s Director of General Education Programs. In this moment of serendipity, Molly couldn’t quite believe it—but she knew she had landed right where she belonged.
Now a Class of 2024 student in Bank Street’s Cross-Age: Early Childhood and Childhood General Education Program, Molly recently met with Abby just to catch up. Here’s what unfolded.
Abby: Molly, I’m not sure if you recall this but you were among the first students of my teaching career in New York City. I was particularly close with your class not only because you were my first group, but also because we lived through a difficult time together. Our school was just a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center and 9/11 was our third day of school. Those relationships were forged by a good bit of hardship. Now, here I am, reconnecting with you today as your program director. It’s quite amazing, actually.
Molly: I know! I was just starting elementary school as a kindergartener. My family had just moved to New York City only a few weeks before I started school.
Abby: I had just moved from New Zealand to New York, too. When I first met you, I was just 24 years old. I completed my master’s degree at Bank Street in May of 2000 and spent a year traveling and conducting research in New Zealand. I returned for the job at PS 234. So it was a big transition for both of us! And then, of course, there was a lot of unexpected change that year, too, after 9/11.
Molly: I was 4, just turning 5, so I have a very faded memory of that day, but I have a much stronger narrative from my parents. You are a big part of our family’s story. Here’s how we tell it: It was early in the morning, and my older sister and I had already been dropped off. It happened to be my sister’s day to bring snacks, so my mom was in my sister’s classroom, while my dad waited in the school yard. As soon as the first plane hit, there was commotion in the school, and my mom took my sister from her classroom and went to the kindergarten classroom to find me. In this stressful moment, she found you trying to read a story to the class. My mom offered to close the blinds and take over reading the story so you could focus on finding out what to do next. Ultimately, when parents were told to take their kids and leave, we left the school and went uptown. But in that small moment, that pause of not knowing, my mom, who was not much older than you, saw you and those kids and wanted to help make sense of this scary situation.
Abby: Your family is a big part of my memory of that day, too. I had 28 4- and 5-year-olds who were just starting kindergarten. We hadn’t had the opportunity to develop trust in one another, and I wasn’t even sure which parents matched which kids, so I was taking my time bringing the group into the building after drop off. That’s when the first plane hit. Then I thought, oh, I can’t bring them into the classroom, because we have a panoramic view of the World Trade Center. I knew that I didn’t want the class to see what was happening outside. We gathered together outside of the classroom. There was a flurry of activity. Parents were coming in and taking kids, and I was trying to keep track of who was going with whom, while trying to read a story and remain calm for the group. Your mom put her hand on my shoulder, and said, ‘Do you want me to read the book?’ I was so relieved that she had poise at that moment. ‘Yes, please, thank you!’ She freed me up to keep track of everybody. I knew she was going to stick with me and help me see this through. That was essentially the start of my relationship with your family. Remarkable, really.
Molly: You were absolutely my favorite teacher in elementary school. Before my little brother was born, I remember begging my parents to name the new baby Abby if it was a girl. I remember feeling the care and love that you had for all of us, which laid a really positive foundation for me. You were a very calming presence. To find out now that you were so young, especially in that moment of handling 9/11, is very impressive.
Abby: It was an unusually difficult year, and I remember thinking my classroom management skills weren’t refined at that point. But one thing Bank Street had taught me was the value of forging relationships with the community. The circumstances actually allowed for more opportunities to connect with families than we might have in a typical year. There were potlucks, picnics, and other community events. We knew if we were going to get through that time, we had to do it as a community. It’s so nice to have the opportunity to revisit those memories and our relationship now, in a different capacity—as you start your own journey as a teacher.
Molly: Building relationships is one of the things that I’m very eager for as I go into teaching.
Abby: That doesn’t surprise me. You were always wired to connect with others. As a 4-year-old, you were so spunky! You were a great collaborator, and the other kids really liked working with you because you were very flexible, although you did have very clear ideas of the projects you wanted to take on. You would get in the block area and just go right to work. I have memories of you, with your hair in your face—you weren’t afraid to get dirty and dig into the messy work of kindergarten.
Molly: It’s so funny to hear a recollection of a younger me. I can see what holds true. I studied studio art as an undergrad. Most of the work I did right after college made an impact on children and families, but it wasn’t always through on-the-ground interactions with them. So now, especially in the city that I grew up in, I’m excited to start working with children and families again, like you did with mine. I’m curious about what brought you into education, especially very early in your professional career. Did you always know you wanted to go into teaching? And what brought you to Bank Street?
Abby: I went to a fairly traditional public school, but I had one really progressive fifth-grade teacher. She changed the way I thought about the role of teachers. They could be flexible, creative, and responsive. This was exciting for me. I thought, “I want to do this!” It was always a clear path for me from that point on. My parents are in the arts, and I think that there’s a close relationship between art and teaching. And my grandmother actually went to Bank Street in the ’30s, so I grew up with some conversations about values that Bank Street espoused. I went to a very progressive college, Hampshire College, where I was able to take a proactive role in my own education. It was very powerful to be given that agency. I knew I wanted to find a graduate school that complemented that experience. Bank Street’s philosophy made a lot of sense to me. I worked at and attended Teachers College for my second master’s, and I taught at Hunter, as well. While those institutions do really amazing work, I was drawn back to Bank Street. It’s where my philosophical true north is.
Abby: What moved you to become a teacher?
Molly: I also had early experiences of working with kids, first at Children’s Aid in high school, and then at Greenwich House in college. This is another full-circle story because I worked at the same after school and summer arts programs that I had gone to as a child in the Village, and I worked alongside some teachers who had taught me. In college, at NYU, I wasn’t quite sure teaching would be for me, so I studied studio art and minored in global and urban education. Right after I graduated, I started working at City School of the Arts, an arts-based charter school in Lower Manhattan, as the assistant to the founding principal. There, I got a high-level overview of how schools operate while maintaining some distance from the classroom, even though I was interested.
Abby: You participated in a lot of organizational change in that role, if I remember from our admissions interview.
Molly: Yes, definitely. I learned a lot from people with extensive teaching careers who had transitioned into leadership roles. Their experience in the classroom laid the foundation for creating unique programs, working with families, and building a school. I ended up working in operations there, and spearheaded the recruitment and enrollment process for new families, which was so enjoyable. Then I worked in fundraising at The B+ Foundation, a non-profit organization that fights childhood cancer. Around the fall of 2021, I started feeling pulled back to school. I’m not sure what I want the full trajectory of my career to look like, but I know teaching is foundational for so many pathways in the field of education.
Abby: I think having the time in the classroom with kids, with families, provides an experience you can’t trade for any amount of coursework. However, you’ve already gained a lot of valuable context by traveling in the concentric circles around the classrooms and teaching. This will really serve you well.
Molly: When I was looking at programs, Bank Street really spoke to me. Not only do they value the relationships between the child, the family, and the school, but the community and the world, as well. In my first year at Bank Street, I’m learning how to understand the whole child and follow their curiosity. It has been wonderful so far. I’m excited about fieldwork, and I’m hoping for a public school placement.
Abby: Maybe we could place you at PS 234 during your fieldwork year!
Molly: If that could happen, that’d really be full circle!
Abby: I think you’ll find the fieldwork experience to be exciting—not just being in the field, but also having the opportunity to work with your conference group to dig into problems of practice and collaborate, to get feedback from your advisor.
Molly: How does it feel to have a former student back in your life as a graduate student who wants to go into the teaching profession?
Abby: I’m giddy about the prospect of you becoming a teacher, because I feel so passionately about the profession. It’s exciting to see that happen for you, and I’m also grateful for the opportunity to support you again at a different stage in your life. What’s it like for you?
Molly: It’s very special, and the word that comes to mind is “serendipitous.” I was very excited about Bank Street, and I had a good friend who graduated from the Child Life Program who raved about it, which is how I was first introduced to the school. I was already eager. To find you here, where you had also trained to teach, and would now teach me? Priceless! That was kind of the seal of approval that I needed to know that this is going to be a good fit for me. To have you as my advisor, too, is the cherry on top. I’m very grateful to have your guidance through this program and my transition into teaching. I couldn’t have asked for more.
Abby: I’m grateful too, Molly.