April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
T.S. Eliot, The Burial of the Dead
It may have been April for Eliot but for me it is May, with its pattern and paradox, its light and shade, which is cruellest. O I know that it is lovely. When I lift my head I catch sight of the blossom. Here is wisteria blooming in my courtyard and bluebells at the foot of a neighbour’s tree. Here are wild service trees along the route to work and cherry petals heaped on pavements. Here, at the edge of the city, are fields of yellow rape and hawthorn hedges.
If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
But I know that when the May breaks out in creamy flowers, musky as death, I must keep my head down.
As a child and young woman May enchanted me. Not one to believe in the stars I had to admit there was something about Taureans; my best friends and nicest boyfriends, it seemed, had birthdays in May. There were high days and holidays: May Day, Half Term, Spring Bank. And there were days of sudden warmth better than any in mid-summer. May was charmed and lovely.
Only in adulthood, once I’d entered the education workforce, did it became cruel. I’m lucky to earn my living as I do; I love my teaching. But twice a year, in January and May, it is marking time. The marketisation of higher education in England has led (among other things) to an increased emphasis on accountability and efficiency. The prompt assessment and return of student work is something which is believed to influence student satisfaction and most universities have reviewed their policy and practice in relation to marking. it is not uncommon, as a result, for academics to be working to assessment deadlines of three weeks or less.
It is undoubtedly the case that some of the developments in higher education in the last five or ten years have enhanced the student experience. There was, it’s true, a laissez-faire approach to the return of student work in many institutions previously. I’m not convinced that the three week turnaround is appropriate; I think students care about the quality as well as speed of feedback and the short deadlines do, without doubt, limit the time which can be spent on individual scripts. However, I support the general principle of setting and meeting deadlines for the return of student work. And I actually don’t dislike marking: even with the limitation of feedback deadlines it offers an opportunity for dialogue. Why, then, is Maytime marking so cruel?
Marking and Caring
I’m fortunate to work in a sector where it has been possible (with reasonable adjustments) for me to continue working while caring for Dylan. That wouldn’t be so easy in some occupations I know. Even with adjustments, combining working with caring is challenging when you are a single parent. For me, marking time is when I particularly feel these pressures.
Working parents of very young children may recognise some of the conflict I experience at these times. In order to meet marking deadlines it is quite normal to have to work through weekends and at evenings. Like a much younger child, Dylan finds it difficult to understand why it is that ‘moo-ey’ (as he calls me) is suddenly not as available or responsive to him at these times. Whereas normally we would be out and about in the community and going for long walks in the Peak District, during the marking period my caring is limited to ensuring that Dylan is safe in the home while I work.
During the January marking period this somehow doesn’t feel so bad. The weather is usually poor and the days are short, lessening the hankering after time outdoors. I can often hunker down with my marking while Dylan watches DVDs. But in May Dylan’s frustration with the situation is palpable. He has a built-in body clock (which I’ve written about elsewhere) which means that at 2.30, on the dot, if we are still in the house he wants to get out. Dylan will come to find me, then, wherever I am and strike his ‘I’m waiting’ pose. This involves Dylan standing – back straight, arms crossed – with a fixed stare. He waits patiently in this position, watching me. His gaze is steady. ‘Two minutes’ I sometimes say, ‘just two minutes and I’ll come’. That’s not true and Dylan knows it. Eventually, holding his position, Dylan will tell me what it is I am doing: ‘poota’ or ‘rea’ or ‘wye’. Under normal circumstances, I will stop, then, and respond to his not unreasonable request. In May, though, with a self-imposed daily quota of scripts to read in order to meet my deadlines, I may stall. And then ‘na na na na na’ Dylan rattles at me, like an angry machine gun.
When Dylan was still at school the challenge of marking during May was compounded by the regular school holidays. The May Day, Half Term and Spring Bank which had so beguiled me as a child became a headache as a parent. It always felt to me like a lose-lose situation. If I succumbed to Dylan and the outdoors I couldn’t relax for worrying about getting the marking done. If I tried to manage Dylan at home while I worked we would both end the day frustrated and unhappy. While we were a two parent family my ex-husband and I would alternate shifts of child care and working which was slightly easier – though still, I recall, with the potential for angst and frustration.
There is no easy solution to the challenge of managing caring responsibilities with pressure points in working life. Having friends and family who are able and willing to help out at such times has to be the best possible solution. For those of us who don’t have such networks, play schemes and holiday activities would be a great alternative. In England, though, we don’t have the same culture of ‘camps’ as in, for example, the United States. Very few such opportunities exist and where they are available they are usually only for a few weeks in August and for limited hours. Furthermore, they are rarely (if ever) inclusive. Throughout his childhood Dylan was only ever able to access one play scheme, organised by a local parents group. He briefly attended a Saturday club but when that closed there were no other social opportunities appropriate to Dylan’s level of need in the city. For young people like my son, who present with complex needs in addition to autism, it is virtually impossible to secure satisfactory out-of-school care.
In last week’s post I described how, earlier this month, I took Dylan for a short break in Scotland. Part of my aim in timing the holiday as I did was to give Dylan a bit of attention before the bulk of my marking was due. I knew that, for the rest of May, I would be juggling caring with marking. It seems to have helped a bit; I’m almost half way through my marking now and the process does feel a little easier than in previous years.
That wasn’t the only reason for the timing though. If you work in a sector where there are specific pressure points in the year it is possible to have your head so far down you can no longer see. This year I didn’t want to miss the blossom; I wanted to make room in my life for May. I like to think that, as well as signalling a fresh approach to marking and caring, this indicates a sense of healing. For here is another reason why May can seem the cruellest month: it is when my mother died. I suspect that since her death, in 2006, part of me has been prepared to miss May, while I marked, in order to avoid painful associations with the time of year.
My most recent collection, A Dart of Green and Blue, opens with a sequence of poems which track my grief in the aftermath of mum’s death through a period of nine months. In the following poem, which is located early in the sequence, I repeat selected words (including May/may) to represent the way in which the bereaved can get stuck at the moment of death but also want to hold on to it in order not to forget.
Everything slow this year. Heavy and green with rain
hawthorn hung stubborn, withholding the May.
At the edge of my distracted sight I may
have caught the vaguest sign of change the day
she died. But it was the next day
(the 4th) I woke to an absence of rain.
Cruel – indifferent – the sun rose again
and, as if spring were remembering itself again,
buds opened. Even the wisteria she’d said may
not flower threw clusters of blue jewels. All day
I thought: She’s missed it. It’s too late. Last May
we walked the hedgerows on the Edge. The rain
had drawn the hawthorn’s musky scent that day:
brings death, I’d thought, as I broke a branch of May.
Grief, somebody once told me, involves the reconciliation of the fear of forgetting with the pain of remembrance; eventually we realise that we will never forget but that it no longer hurts so much to remember. This year I am trying to celebrate May by remembering my mum and the way she helped me to love this time of year as a child. I hope that, as well as getting my marking done, I am finding time to teach Dylan how to love May too.
Elizabeth Barrett (2010) ‘May’ in A Dart of Green and Blue. Arc Publications
T.S.Eliot (1922) ‘The Burial of the Dead’ from The Waste Land. Faber and Faber
T.S. Eliot (1944) ‘Little Gidding’ from Four Quartets. Faber and Faber