They slip past soldiers in full combat gear, carrying rifles and headed to the trenches about 20 miles away, and watch military trucks rumble past, kicking up clouds of dust. They are living their teenage years in a holding pattern because of the war that rages around them — without prom, graduation ceremonies, movie theaters, parties or sports.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has caused tremendous direct damage, killing tens of thousands of people and forcing millions of Ukrainians from their homes. But the war has also claimed another casualty: the normal experiences of teenagers like those in Sloviansk who live near combat zones, hanging out in ravaged cities where rockets fly in regularly.
During a meandering walk around town on a recent afternoon, a half-dozen teenagers said they mostly handled the hardships of war, and the terror of Russian attacks, with humor — making fun of everything around them, including one another. They are identified only by their first names because of their ages.
Sloviansk, a small city on a crossroads that was briefly occupied by Russian proxy forces in 2014, was again afflicted by war after the full-scale invasion last year. Front lines drew close, and artillery strikes began to pound the city. It is seen as a likely next target if Russia captures Bakhmut, its neighbor to the east.
And yet many teenagers remain despite the danger, their parents held to the city by jobs or a reluctance to abandon their homes and live as refugees. The youths' last day in a school classroom was Feb. 23, 2022, the day before Russia invaded. Authorities canceled all organized activities for young people, lest a rocket hit a gathering.
"In my 31 years, it was always, 'You gotta go to college if you want a job,'" said Wissman, who is training as an apprentice at the Finishing Trades Institute in Philadelphia, where the president spoke in March.
As Biden campaigns for reelection, he is trying to bridge an educational divide that is reshaping the American political landscape. Even though both political parties portray education as crucial for advancement and opportunity, college-educated voters are now more likely to identify as Democrats, while those without college degrees are more likely to support Republicans.
That increasingly clear split has enormous implications for Biden as he tries to expand the coalition of voters that sent him to the White House in the first place. In 2020, Biden won 61% of college graduates, but only 45% of voters without a four-year college degree — and just 33% of white voters without a four-year degree.
"The Democratic Party has become a cosmopolitan, college-educated party even though it's a party that considers itself a party of working people," said David Axelrod, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama.
Axelrod added that the perception that Wall Street had been bailed out during the 2008 recession while the middle class was left to struggle deepened the fissure between Democrats and blue-collar workers who did not attend college.
The election of Donald Trump, who harnessed many of those grievances for political gain, solidified the trend.
Now, in speeches around the country, Biden rarely speaks about his signature piece of legislation, a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, without also emphasizing that it will lead to trade apprenticeships and, ultimately, union jobs.
The White House says apprenticeship programs, which typically combine some classroom learning with paid on-the-job experience, are crucial to overcoming a tight labor market and ensuring that there is a sufficient workforce to turn the president's sprawling spending plan into roads, bridges and electric vehicle chargers.