Reading, Writing, Taking Cover: Teaching in Ukraine

Reading, Writing, Taking Cover: Teaching in Ukraine

By Matteo Latorraca

Pointillism via bullet holes.
SourcePhoto Courtesy of Giuseppe Maritati


Art may not be absolutely redemptive, but it’ll get us close.

By Matteo Latorraca

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?

Maryna Marchenko
Avdiivka, Ukraine

I’m Maryna. I’m 73 years old, and for most of my life I’ve been a Ukrainian grammar and literature teacher. The life here in Avdiivka is harsh. The war has knocked on our doors once again, hitting our city, our homes, our lives. It escalated, forcing people to flee. We’ll see what will happen. We’re pretty used to it. Maybe it will go back to normal, as it used to be at the beginning of 2017. Families walked on the streets, youth hung out in the cafés and socialized, shoppers commented on the outcome of the last battles. The war never stopped, but it seemed to be far.

It has been raging since spring 2014. On one side, the Ukrainian troops. On the other, the separatists, the ones who want to claim independence from the rest of the country. At that time, we saw our cities being destroyed and shelled, as it became the bone of contention between the two sides. I’ve lived enough to know that that was the most awful time in Ukrainian history. The war was far more ferocious. Not only has it influenced me, but also my pupils and all the citizens of Ukraine.

I work in Avdiivka Middle School. My pupils are around 12 years old. Some students are more active and prepared than others. Some just work harder. I usually read abstracts from a book, asking about the topics and its peculiarities. On our school entrance it says, “Welcome to the world of knowledge.”

During the 2014 battles, we saw many people leave the city. The city was left in tatters and abandoned. Many came back because of the lack of money. The life was too pricey elsewhere and also, the situation improved in Avdiivka. When we started the school year, there were eight to nine pupils in the class, but now we have classes with 30 and 32 students, children of those people who came back because there is no place like home. We can observe this in our pupils also.

As life has returned to normal, I’ve tried to help the students rediscover values — among them, patriotism. The children now seem to value their native land so much. In any case, they’re much more patriotic. I couldn’t see all this before. Yes, they used to love it, but not in this way.

Who could imagine I’d become one of the symbols of this war? That wasn’t my desire at all.

The conflict also changed my life. My husband was killed in 2014. Probably, it’s also the cause behind my heart disease. We lived together for 50 years.

But my story impressed Guido van Helten so much that he decided to paint me. He comes from Australia. His intention was to represent the essence of this city so badly disrupted and touched by the conflict. He managed to get pictures of the people of Avdiivka. This artist started looking through all those photos. My picture was among those too. He pointed at it with his finger: “I am going to paint this woman. She is so full of grief.”

Guido arrived at the school and he took a picture of me. In two days, he completed the work. I live nearby, so I decided to go and see how it was. I look much older there. However, I think that this mural depicted a general image of a suffering woman who survived war, like other mothers and sisters. A woman like this needs to have wrinkles, I believe.

My face now stands on the wall of a nine-story building, oriented toward the enemy lines. Nobody lives there because it was so badly damaged. Who could imagine I’d become one of the symbols of this war? That wasn’t my desire at all.

I think that in these hard times, art can play a very important role, though. For example, artists coming, showing us a performance, inviting pupils? This is like a breath of fresh air. We feel that we are not alone, that people are with us, they understand us, support us. All this gives us real joy.

avdiivka 11

On the shoulders of sorrow, this country might be rebuilt, one classroom at a time.

Source Photo Courtesy of Giuseppe Maritati

Art drew a lot of attention to the city. We were really full of love and compassion because of our sorrow, and I felt exceptionally positive about this. We always welcome and meet the artists with karavai [traditional bread and salt: a sign of hospitality —Eds.], because we are told when they arrive.

This war brought so much pain in my life. However, when I come to work, I am distracted from my own grief. It happens also when I see a concert or I see children’s smiles. I do live during these moments. They give me the courage to carry on.