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.
But eventually, the domestic life wore me down. “Why should I pick up your smelly socks?” I once asked my husband after months of indoctrination. Although he’d just come home from a 20-hour day at the law firm, I still felt he owed me something. After all, it’s hard living in Gramercy Park, attending a private university, and realizing you’re trapped in my “bird cage of missed opportunities.”
Or at least that’s what I thought. It took about two hours of deprogramming for every hour spent in class . . . and eventually my 21-year-old self couldn’t take it any more. Quite frankly, neither could my marriage.
But this was hard to explain to the two blonde kids who ran into the kitchen to hear the story of Why Mommy Quit School.
I took a deep breath and did what any self-respecting mother would do in a similar situation. “Let’s discuss it when Daddy gets home.” (More clever than you know, since my husband is deployed to Iraq for a year.) In the ensuing months, however, I think I’ve figured out what I’m going to tell them.
First of all, education isn’t an event, it’s a lifestyle. Since I walked off of NYU’s Greenwich Village campus in 1996 and left formal education behind, I’ve never stopped learning. I learned about bicycles when I sold them at Paragon Athletics, I learned about filet mignon when I waitressed for an upscale caterer, I learned about the joys of epidurals when I gave birth twice, and I learned about politics when I lived in Philly during the hotly contested 2004 election. While I left college for good reasons, I never stopped learning.
Second of all, you can succeed if you work hard. This used to be a commonly held American belief until it was replaced with: overschedule high-school activities; accumulate massive debt in college where leftist professors will teach you God is female and socialists are more compassionate; get married after you’re occupationally established; have kids when it fits into your career path; and use the best day-care money can buy. However, the magic of elbow grease still exists. I’ve learned if you show up on time, meet deadlines, and generally do what you’re told, you’re in the top percentage of American workers — regardless of economic achievement. Using this philosophy, I’ve been able to publish books, work for a presidential campaign, and travel all over the country in various adventures. (When I traveled through South Carolina with Ann Romney during the primaries, I learned auto tycoon and former Michigan Governor George Romney only spent a year at the University of Utah — and his family turned out just fine.)
Lastly, it is important to finish what you start. Good old-fashioned stick-to-it-iveness shouldn’t be undervalued, but college is not the most important metric by which to judge success. In my case, I had to choose between sticking to my education and sticking to my marriage.
And the two blonde kids still waiting to hear mom’s dropout story are proof positive I made the right choice.
– Nancy French is the author of Red State of Mind: How a Catfish Queen Reject Became a Liberty Belle.