JANELL ORCHARD sits with her son, Knox, in the South Park Blocks. Orchard has returned to school after 15 years away. They both live on campus.
“We were walking to the library the other day,” student parent Janell Orchard said, “waiting to cross the street, and these were the people crossing with us: a little person in drag, a humongous white guy wearing one of those conical Asian hats, a guy singing ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’ at the top of his lungs and a man with a parrot on his shoulder. And my son didn’t have a word to say about any of it. It didn’t even cross his mind to notice. I love, love, love that about living downtown.”
Her son, Knox, is 5 years old, barefoot and lithe.
In jeans and a flannel shirt, with mussed copper hair, Orchard could pass as a traditional college student. A junior English major at 35, she looks younger.
But sitting on the couch in their campus apartment—Knox’s play rugs and paint-splashed artwork decorating the room, his bare toes burrowed in her hand—Orchard looks motherly.
“It’s hard to be a student parent,” Orchard said. “I feel like people don’t get how crazy it is. For me, study time starts at 7:30 p.m. when he goes to bed. That’s all I get. I don’t get time during the day or before class. I’m trying to fit in as a normal college student, but there’s nothing normal about this experience. It’s awesome, but hard.”
Last September, at dawn, Orchard parked a U-Haul in the Park Blocks and ambled up several flights of stairs to her new apartment in an old campus building.
“I remember unlocking the door and thinking, oh, my God, this is my own space, this is really going to happen. I get to go to school. I get to have my own space like a normal grown up,” Orchard recalled. “I sat down in the middle of the floor and cried.”
The year and a half prior she had spent recouping from a divorce in her childhood home in Northeast Portland.
“My divorce threw my life into utter chaos,” Orchard said. “I was staying at home with Knox; it’s not like I was working and had a career. I didn’t know if I could get a job or if I could even support myself on any job I could get. So we ended up living with my parents.”
Until she decided to return to school, she struggled with her life’s new uncertainty. She will enroll in PSU’s Graduate Teacher Education Program in two years.
Orchard started college at the traditional age, childless, 17 years ago. At Willamette University in Salem, she studied piano and literature.
“It was a fantastic school, but I’m more structured now. My friends in high school were going off to fancy schools—Harvard, Princeton and Brown. I felt like that’s what I should do, too. I should have just gone to the University of Oregon,” she joked.
She worked upwards of 30 hours a week while studying full time and cites that as the likely reason it didn’t work out.
Orchard believes she could be teaching piano now had she stayed. “I do kind of feel like I missed out on that.”
With Knox’s hand on hers, back in their living room, Orchard recalled the pieces she studied. “Chopin’s ‘Fantasie Impromptu,’” she said. “It was so hard. I can’t jump back into that now. It would be way too hard to get to where I was.”
Like many students, Orchard lives off financial aid. Her school is paid for, in part, by grants, and she gets food stamps.
“I just try to get good things for Knox,” Orchard said. “So we split it up: I get things like ramen and Knox gets things like organic strawberries.”
Despite a challenging journey, Orchard appears appreciative—not just of food stamps and her own cozy apartment, but that, ultimately, she and her son are together.
“There was this day when I was driving, Knox was asleep in the backseat, and I realized the divorce was going to happen,” she said. “I realized I still had him, that we were a unit and a family of our own.”
His name mentioned, Knox crawls up his mother’s side and burrows.