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In Ukraine, a kindergarten teacher returns to visit a ghost classroom

MILES PARKS, HOST:

In the days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Iryna Sahan was helping her kindergarten students plant African violets for their mothers. They filled the plastic pots to the brim with dirt with little sprouts at the center. When they finished, the plants sat - ready to grow, full of potential - along the windows of their classroom in the northeast city of Kharkiv. But then the missile attacks began, and schools in Kharkiv closed. Now, more than a year later, Sahan and NPR's Elissa Nadworny went back to that classroom.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Tell me a little bit about what it's like to be in this classroom. This isn't what you left in February.

IRYNA SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "All you see is the emptiness," Iryna Sahan tells me. "All you hear is the silence." Students haven't been here since the invasion. Now everything is online. But Iryna's come back to help me understand what it used to be like.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "There was a hairdressing stand over there and a train set over there," she says. "It's a place I'm really proud of." Iryna, who is patient and kind, has been a kindergarten teacher for three decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOCKER DOORS THUDDING)

NADWORNY: She opens the lockers, still filled with students' clothes and shoes. Those students are now spread around Ukraine and the world.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: But Iryna and her husband stayed here in Kharkiv to take care of her elderly mother. Her days are no longer filled with giggles and discoveries. Instead, she reads the news, navigates the ongoing power outages and nurses her mother.

SAHAN: (Sighing, non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I am stuck. I am waiting," she says.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Everything is on pause."

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She says it's like a pie where you made the dough but never baked it...

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: ...Or an item you started to sew but only got a chance to cut the fabric.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She tells me she doesn't let herself get too sad or too stressed about her situation.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "You can't let children see you are scared or that something is wrong," she says. "You have to be cheerful. You have to smile and comfort the children. I've always done that. It's who I am now."

Is that exhausting?

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "No," she says. "It's my life."

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: But she's not in denial.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I know that this is what happens. These students - they weren't going to be in my class forever. They would have moved on to first grade." Plus, she's been keeping tabs on them.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She pulls up her phone. She's been following them on social media and in a group text chat. She pulls up a video of one boy 13 hours away in western Ukraine.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Parents and students frequently send her messages telling her how much they miss her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken). She's just wonderful.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Iryna is best one with them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: She's got a gift. She can see and feel the children.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: She is more than a teacher, you know, because she is like a second mom.

NADWORNY: What do you remember from your kindergarten?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: I wonder what you would say to your former students as they're starting their new lives around the world.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Iryna touches her hand to her heart. "I would want to give each of the children a hug," she says. "That's how we started each morning before the invasion." Iryna runs her hands over the stacks of tables and chairs. The classroom has been packed up, the books and toys put away, but there are certain things she's left intact. The names of the children from last February are still pinned on the lockers and on their nap time beds.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I can't bring myself to remove them," Iryna says.

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Not until a new group of students fill the desks.

Will you show us the African violets?

SAHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Not all of them survived," she says. She points to a handful with big green leaves. "But some did." She and other teachers have been watering them.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Kharkiv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.