Thumbs Up: How Mr. Klimenko’s travels shaped his teaching

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Although it may seem that every successful person knows what they want to do at a young age, this is not always the case. Upper school history teacher Vladimir Kilmenko took a long and winding path to get to the teaching position that he has today. Mr. Klimenko did not even begin to teach until the age of 38, spending many years traveling as a journalist and a Russian-English interpreter. 

During high school, Mr. Klimenko attended Phillips Exeter Academy on an academic scholarship. Klimenko said that the school and students broadened his horizons significantly as he met “interesting kids that had been places, done things, and had cool and strong passions”. 

While at Exeter, Klimenko met quite a few students who came from wealthy families. Although he was not jealous of the countless material things his classmates possessed, Klimenko always envied the travel those students experienced. After hearing about the travels of his classmates, Mr. Klimenko made a promise to himself that, no matter what, he too, would travel the world. 

As the son and grandson of World War II refugees, Mr. Kilmenko heard the stories of what his family had gone through and was convinced that if they could endure real hardships, he could endure the minor discomforts of rough travel. 

As a senior in high school, Mr. Klimenko began to hitchhike, which sparked several years of adventure. Klimenko hitchhiked from Princeton, NJ to Washington DC, and then to New York. After graduating highschool, he hitchhiked and rode freight trains across the United States and around the world. 

This lifestyle led Mr. Klimenko to move to the Soviet Union during its collapse where he  covered the stories of the hyper-volatile collapse in the economy, ethnic conflicts, extremist politics, and how regular people adjusted when everything they knew disappeared. During his three years in the Soviet Union, Klimenko met countless people and heard their stories all while finding out more about his past and family. Towards the end of his time in the Soviet Union, Klimenko found a thick secret police file on his grandfather, who had been arrested and killed during the Stalin dictatorship. 

After returning home from his adventures in Russia, Mr. Klimenko’s curiosity about the lives of others did not die. Once he resettled in the United States, Klimenko worked on a documentary about the survivors of Stalin’s concentration camps. This documentary, Stolen Years, was later aired internationally on PBS. 

Although Mr. Klimenko had an inkling early on that he wanted to be a teacher, he did not allow himself to think about it until his mid-thirties because he wanted to “spend some time in the real world.” After having these real-world experiences, Mr. Klimenko feels he is a “more confident, more comfortable, and better-informed teacher.” As he traveled the world, Klimenko has found that he has a better understanding of what is truly important and what is worthy of his time and energy. 

As Mr. Klimenko reflects on these adventures he says that they “taught me to respect and value the wisdom and generosity of ordinary people. Those adventures built up a storehouse of empathy and curiosity that I have for many humans, especially those whose lives and stories often get ignored.”