This story appears in the January 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine. It is part of a series in which five contributors answer the question “What was it like to be a photographer in 2020?”
A lot of my work as a photographer has been about revisiting and reconstructing the past. Getting a second chance. Last year I got to graduate from high school.
I wanted to spend part of 2020 profiling one school in America affected by the pandemic. So many stories I was reading in the spring felt hopeless. “The Lost Year” was the headline of 2020. I was searching for a school that hadn’t given up.
That’s when I read an article about Principal Mike Lewandowski, who was planning a socially distanced parade for the senior class of St. Francis High, a small school on the outskirts of Milwaukee. He had such energy. He wasn’t going to be defined by the pandemic. I realized later that both of us were determined not to let 2020 be the year that broke us.
I had never finished high school after dropping out when my mother got divorced from my stepfather and moved from California to Oregon. I emigrated from Russia as a child, never felt like I belonged in Santa Barbara, and just couldn’t start over again. After the first day of class my junior year, I left school and told myself I would never go back. My mother was disappointed in me. “I brought you to the United States of America, not so you could fail,” she told me.
The cinematographer on the St. Francis High project was Andy Catarisano—who, coincidentally, had left high school the same year I had. Together we embedded in this Wisconsin school and had a chance to relive something we’d both missed out on. Principal Lewandowski was really taken by it. He couldn’t believe we hadn’t finished high school. We had a running joke that doing this project should count as our thesis to finally graduate.
And then, the day of graduation, the principal gave Andy and me caps, gowns, and little folders designed to hold a diploma.
At the staging grounds in the school parking lot, graduating seniors in red and white robes posed with Lewandowski. Then the long procession of cars plastered with pictures, balloons, and streamers made its way through town.
A month later, Andy and I got our high school diplomas in the mail. It felt surreal, like a movie we were both in.
Through this project, I got to know the students at St. Francis better than I’d known my own classmates. They were a little confused about how Andy and I managed to finish school in 10 days, while it took them four years. Principal Mike said that we helped them heal from the abrupt way their senior year ended. But I think it went both ways: They helped us heal too.
My mom was more proud of this diploma than when I got a master’s degree. She said, I can’t believe you persuaded someone to give you a high school diploma. I said, It’s not just someone, Mom—it’s the high school principal. Only in America can you arrive at a random school, explain your story, and get a second chance.
The negative feelings I had toward high school have diminished. I’ve been allowed to reclaim something I lost. This project gave me that second chance, as photography so uniquely can.
Read more from this series, “What was it like to be a photographer in 2020?”
Ruddy Roye: ‘Our job is to be part of this struggle in a very positive way’
Hannah Reyes Morales: ‘It was such a revelation, seeing this pandemic play out’
David Guttenfelder: ‘Everybody’s got an important story to tell’
Anand Varma: The pandemic dealt photographers setbacks—and surprises