11 July 2024

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The heavy rubber gas masks placed atop small wooden desks are nothing strange to these children as they file past the bomb shelter’s iron door to attend classes in weapons theory.

Nearby, children giggle, trying to keep up with their English teacher as she sings and gestures “Head and shoulders, knees and toes. Knees and toes!” each repetition getting a little faster.

Unique in Ukraine, Volodymyr the Great school Number 23 on the outskirts of Kyiv trains children to become military cadets, starting at the age of 7.

They are sent to this weekday boarding school to learn discipline, but many now see the skills being taught here as essential to their survival, returning to class with the country at war.

The school officially reopens Friday for the first time since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Young cadets sing the national anthem during rehearsal of a ceremony on the first day of school at a cadet lyceum in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Many of its 540 students took part in a rehearsal Thursday for the opening day ceremony, the boys in black and gold military uniforms, often a little oversized and reminiscent of the Soviet era, with broad hats and heavy shoulder boards.

In formation, the students carried tasseled frames of blue and yellow ‒ the national colors ‒ moving in time as the music alternated between children’s songs and military marching anthems.

Many cadet schools were set up in Soviet republics, but students at Volodymyr the Great were all born long after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and were not in recent years pressured to join the military when they graduated.

Yaroslav, a 16-year-old student at the school, always wanted to study law and try life in Western Europe. But his school is only a few kilometers (miles) from where the Russian advance left neighborhoods pulverized by artillery fire, civilians thrown into mass graves, and attitudes hardened among ordinary Ukrainians.

“I’ll be honest with you … I want to fight in this war,” Yaroslav says. “I always wanted to travel but that decision has changed. I want to become a military man.”

Cadets carry national flags during a rehearsal of a ceremony on the first day of school at a cadet lyceum in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Yaroslav’s father, an army engineer, was killed after war first broke out in the east of the country in 2014.

“My father was not afraid to go to the front, and I want to be that way too,” said Yaroslav.

Many of his classmates said they were inspired by the bravery displayed by Ukraine’s armed forces during the five-week siege of Kyiv that ended with the Russian retreat.

“We are constantly getting stronger and becoming one of the best armies in Europe, that’s how we can hold the Russians back,” says Yaroslav’s classmate Bohdan. “And it’s thanks to those fighters who stand at the front line, that we can keep going.”

Their English teacher Olha Kyrei, who has taught at the school for nine years, says she’s seen a difference in her students since the war started.

“I think maybe in one month they became more serious,” she said. “The eyes, when you look at the eyes, you don’t look into the eyes of children. You look at the eyes of adults.”

A little girl holds a Ukrainian flag as she watches a cadet guard of honour during the rehearsal of a ceremony on the first day of school at a cadet lyceum in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Kyrei keeps in touch with school graduates ‒ referring to them as “my children” ‒ who have been drafted into the military, sending them text messages “nearly every day.” She hopes the war will be over by the time her current batch of students graduates.

“We are praying for our school leavers of the June 2023,” she said. “We’re praying that everything will be okay by then: That this situation, this awful situation, this war will be over.”

School Principal Natalia Holovyhyna said two former students had already been killed in the war.

At school and during months of online classes Holovyhyna and her teachers say they try to keep the children occupied with additional homework and activities to stop them dwelling excessively on the war.

Teachers, she said, chose to stay in Kyiv when the fighting started, continuing classes online from their homes and volunteering to keep school facilities open so local residents could use its bomb shelters.

“I’m very proud of them,” Holovyhyna says, pausing with emotion. “Our teachers are focused on making the studying process comfortable … We’re bringing them up to become professional engineers, doctors, teachers and soldiers as well.”