Dude, Where’s My Graduation Pic?


Flying back from New Mexico last Sunday relishing my newfound recognition of slip faulting, the product of my recently completed Geology 111 class, which constituted the “Final Four” credits that had been standing between me and my Bachelor’s Degree for lo these many decades, I was one proud slamma-mamma-jamma (not so much a summa-cumma-Lawdy) college graduate. Yep, 42 years after an academically challenged 18-year-old first crossed the threshold of an English 101 class at the University of New Mexico, I finally dragged my slacker ass back to school this past semester and finished my B.A. in Journalism. Hilarious, right? After being a television news anchor, cum political press secretary, cum corporate PR flak, cum video producer, cum author, I finally had that comely piece of paper. Traveled a thousand miles just to walk.

I was stoked, man. At Sunday’s commencement at the University of New Mexico arena, affectionately known as The Pit, in the hallowed halls of Lobo basketball fame, I sat in the midst of some of the most beautiful and promising young faces I have ever seen —faces of the fascinating and unique cultural mix that is the Land of Enchantment.  It felt good to be home. I cannot begin to tell you how proud and happy I was and how many times I cried. As my late brother J.R. used to say regarding the Whatley proclivity for tears, “it’s a medical condition.” Okay then, I can’t help it. I grew misty at the first strains of music from the UNM Brass Choir. French horns do that to me. I dabbed my eyes at the sight of my Indian classmates dripping in turquoise and distinctive tribal dress draped over their academic regalia. But it was the mariachis, who strolled in for the recessional: rich guitar chords, trumpets bursting, high and sweet, that brought down the house and completely did me in. My New Mexico roots run deep.

That particular moment was the culmination of a plan I hatched last winter. I was cold and cranky, a little depressed, truthfully. I was grousing to myself and others about my 60th birthday looming large come springtime. Shit was nagging me. Weight unlost, degree not conferred, writing career stalled, music career never born, you know, the normal lament of a delusional 59-year old. In a moment of wine-laced melancholy turned bravado,  as I was staring into the halting flames of the compressed log we were struggling to ignite in the chiminea on my deck, the spark of an idea took hold. I proclaimed to my daughter and her fiance, who was poking at the smoldering log and chuckling under her breath, that I wanted a big-ass party for my 60th birthday. I’ve always found that the best way to deal with the boogie man is to parade him out in front of everybody. I told them I wanted a blowout for my birthday, with a live band and I wanted to SING with that band. Plus, by then, I said, “we’ll be celebrating my pending college graduation and acceptance into grad school. Oh, and I”ll be twenty pounds lighter.”

Three out of four ain’t bad.

So, what’s the deal here, you might be asking. (Maybe not….) But you might wonder what in the hell drives me to do these things? At 60, I have nothing to prove. But…

At the top of the bulletin board in my office is a headline from a newspaper article I cut out so long ago I’ve forgotten the story. The headline reads: Go Boldly.

Go Boldly: it is my higher self keeping me honest.
Go Boldly:  it’s a call to action, an expectation of a certain behavior, a hereditary trait as true as DNA.
Go Boldly: it reminds me not to go meekly.

I know how that feels, too. I know how hard it is to keep going sometimes. I know how it feels to dread getting out of bed, to feel stuck — stuck in sadness, or inertia, or indecision, drudgery or debt. Sometimes it’s the drudgery of getting out of debt. This makes us feel timid, or scared, or lonely. Sometimes we just feel beat down. Those are the times when we have to push through. We simply have to push through. My mother used to tell me, “you can’t get tired now, baby.” I live by her admonishment. I understand that sometimes life requires us to pull on our boots, stand up from the bed and move forward.

Because we can.

I was wearing my favorite, well-worn Lucchese cowboy boots when I sang with the band on my birthday. I didn’t hit all the high notes, but I sure as hell had fun.

I was wearing those trusty boots when I walked across the stage last week and shook the university president’s hand. It was thrilling. And having my two sisters-in-law, Karen and Beverly there,  well, it meant the world to me.

Come July, when I start my first graduate course towards a Masters in Writing, it will probably be too hot for cowboy boots, but we’ll see.  I don’t want the other kids to think I’m weird or anything. But here’s the deal: my cowboy boots give me swagger. On days when I am insecure or scared or down, my cowboy boots boost my confidence. They support me literally and figuratively. They are a reminder of what has shaped me into who I am.  And even though they’re on my feet, they keep my family close at heart and help me to Go Boldly.

Underneath that tattered headline on the bulletin board, is a photo of my four brothers and my mother. Four of the five people in that photograph are gone now.  Only my younger brother Paul and I remain. There is a certain degree of responsibility with being a survivor. Go boldly. I feel my mother’s and my brothers’ presence with me every day. It’s especially palpable at 42,000 feet. I suspect it’s the clouds. Cliche’ I admit, but cruising altitude seems to trigger their voices in my head. It’s as if they’re saying “Go Jeannie, go! Go for us.”

I landed in St. Louis from my Albuquerque commencement trip feeling like the queen of the world —a bundle of self-actualized, goal-reachin’ satisfaction. Truthfully, I just felt grateful to have had the experience. It was profoundly moving in ways unimagined.

But, imagine my chagrin when first thing Monday morning, the ping of an email leads me to this guy!

Seems the ‘ol Grad Images sent me the wrong damn picture! I clicked on the link  that said, “this photo is not me.” I filled out all the appropriate boxes to “find my photo.” It was stuff like male/female, length and color of hair, glasses/no glasses, jewelry, facial hair, clothing under robe and I said “none.”  And in the box that said “other distinguishable features to help us find your photo,” I simply put: old.

Couldn’t help but wonder if the dude in this photo got the pic of the 60-year old, slightly chubby, class cry baby.

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Jean–By the looks of your graduation picture, you need some Nair for that facial hair you got goin’ on your upper lip. ;)

    I remember falling asleep in geology class when I was in my late teens. I can’t imagine passing it now.

    I got my degree later in life, and I think I appreciated it a great deal more than if it had happened when I was 21.

    Congratulations, Jean. You’re one bad mamma jamma!

  2. Linda Goodwin-Parkinson says:

    I am so, so proud of you. Congrats and happy birthday. You are definitely one of my heroes — and I don’t have many!

    • Hey Linda, that’s a helluva compliment coming from a woman who got her PhD! Truth is, it wasn’t that hard, it was one silly class! I’m a world class procrastinator, not so much a hero, honey. Love you.

  3. Margie Davis says:

    Many Many Many Congratulations ( and a Super Happy Belated birthday !!!! ) Jean!!!!!!
    So very happy for you….YOU REALLY ROCK!!!!

    Please keep writing for us as you start your next fantastic adventure at Grad School!!!!