How a Ukrainian teacher helped students escape Russia's invasion, and still graduate As residents return to a liberated town near Kyiv, a teacher and her high school students recount what it took to survive the war.

How a Ukrainian teacher helped students escape Russia's invasion, and still graduate

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The invasion of Ukraine swiftly upended the lives of millions. The town of Borodyanka was recently liberated after Russian forces occupied it for weeks. NPR's Anya Kamenetz went there and met a teacher who rescued her student.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Viktoria Timoshenko's biology classroom is a surreal sight. A Russian shell tore through the walls and ceiling. You can hear the traffic outside through the open hole where the windows used to be.

VIKTORIA TIMOSHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: Her classroom was so destroyed she had trouble recognizing it. This was Timoshenko's first year teaching.

VOLODYMYR HRABOVENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: "To tell you the truth, we didn't take her seriously," says her student, Volodymyr Hrabovenko, who goes by Vova. "We were the senior class," he says, "and she was too young" - just 25. Vova's an outgoing kid with ears that stick out slightly and a crooked grin. He's been attending the same school since preschool and has been student body president since eighth grade. He and his classmates quickly warmed up to Timoshenko, who's petite with dark curly hair. She didn't talk down to them. She taught them about condoms and consent in biology class.

TIMOSHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: She says, she wanted to give them the information they would need in the future. But the future changed on February 28. That's the day Vova remembers seeing Russian helicopters flying overhead.

HRABOVENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: "I was really scared," he says. "At that moment, you understand that there is a war. After this understanding, you don't have anything anymore. You don't have dreams. You don't have thoughts."

TIMOSHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: Timoshenko knew Vova and his family were in an especially dangerous part of town with no power or cell phone coverage. So she called local authorities and begged them to get Vova out. And it worked. They sent a car for him and his grandmother while his older brother stayed in the house with their mother. Then Timoshenko got an offer to move them even further from danger, 3 1/2 hours away to a town called Vinnytsia. But Vova's grandmother refused to move so far away.

HRABOVENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: "We didn't have enough time to say goodbye," he says. "The driver said, pick your things up immediately. I came to my granny, and I said, I'm leaving. And she said, good. Be safe." On March 16, one week after they parted, a Russian airstrike killed his grandmother. She had just turned 82 years old. She's buried here in the town's new cemetery. Next to her fresh grave, there are two open ones waiting. The governor says at least 150 civilians were killed during the occupation. They're finding more bodies every day. After Vova and Timoshenko evacuated, Russian soldiers came to his house. They saw photographs of him, a young man almost old enough to fight, and asked where he was.

HRABOVENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: His mother and brother told the truth. They didn't know. So the soldiers beat them. And Vova says they shot at his brother, and a bullet grazed his ear. To cope with everything, Vova listens to a lot of music, he makes art, and he writes poetry. This is his poem about rebuilding a new country after the war.

HRABOVENKO: (Reading in non-English language).

KAMENETZ: In May, they return to a village close to Borodyanka. Vova's now living with one of his sisters. Timoshenko is staying in a house that belongs to a family that has left for Poland. She's resumed teaching online for now. The school building is unusable. The Ukrainian government alleges that Russian forces have damaged more than 1,700 educational institutions across the country, but that's not going to stop most of Vova's senior class. Eighteen out of the 20 students, including him, will get their diplomas this spring.

Anna Kamenetz, NPR News, Borodyanka, Ukraine.

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