Kids and the D Word
What I did with Camus.


Nancy French

I was cooking dinner for some friends milling around the kitchen when I forgot my nine-year-old was within earshot.

“But what do I know,” I asked after expressing an opinion. “I’m just a college dropout.”

Camille looked up from her homework, her eyes wide.

Normally, I speak in the whispered tone of a mother who doesn’t want her kids to emulate her. They knew Daddy went to Harvard Law School — I taught them to casually drop that into conversation in case there was an emergency and we weren’t around when the doctor showed up.

But they had no idea the woman who lectured them on “finishing what your started” had actually quit something as significant as college. And apparently, I’m not alone. Millions of students quit school before getting their diploma, in an epidemic that has educators scratching their heads. More than half a million Kentuckians have some college and no degree, according to the 2000 Census. (Even more interesting, more than 11,000 of these had already earned 90 or more credit hours.) But it’s not just a southern phenomenon. Pennsylvania, for example, has over a million people who started but didn’t finish college.

“I’m a dropout,” I admitted to my daughter, in a confession I wasn’t prepared to make. (This was in the category of “What They Don’t Know Can’t Hurt Them,” along with the fact that I decided to marry their dad on the second date. Shhhhh . . . )

Inexplicably, Camille squealed in delight and ran out of the room to find her little brother. “Austin, Austin! You’re not gonna believe this!”

And that’s how I began to come to terms with my status as a non-graduate. On my résumé, I used to describe myself as an “alumna of New York University,” an ambiguous expression which (like love) covers a multitude of sins.

At parties when asked what my degree is in, I used to reply I “majored in philosophy” — a perfectly distracting answer because it makes some people laugh at what they think is frivolous study. Others, however, start talking about Camus with the kind of conspiratorial exclusivity that comes from being the only people in the room who know something.

My only problem? I don’t really have an opinion on Camus. I was first attracted to philosophy by reading Plato, but ended up in New York University’s so-called “Women’s Studies” department. My first class there was called, The Philosophy of Sex, which didn’t encourage us to think logically about the problems of gender and society in the modern world. Instead I spent most of my time defending my decision to get (heterosexually) married so young, and explaining my apparently anachronistic willingness to wash the dishes.