Saturday, April 15, 2006

Working at Easter

Until coming to America, I had never worked on Good Friday, at least as far as I can remember (I may have done so when I used to work for the Disney Store back in 1994-5, but I don't recall; I remember working Christmas Eve there in '94). When you work as an academic in the UK, you'll never work at Easter because the Universities are all on Easter vacation. As a student in Oxford, I used to get a good deal -- the Easter vacation is 6 weeks long, just like the Christmas vacation. The Oxford academic year is made up of 3 x 8 week terms, early October to early December, mid January to mid March and late April to late June. In practice you are there for much longer than those 24 weeks -- you want to be there for longer so that you can bask in such a wonderful city, especially in the summer, when you just want to get as much punting in as you can, and evening time trips to the Perch, perhaps taking in some strawberry picking on the way.

At the University of Birmingham, where I spent a happy decade (1995-2005), we had a similar academic year, but with slightly longer terms, mid September to mid December, mid January to the end of March, the end of April to the middle of June, usually allowing a 4 week Christmas vacation and a 4 week Easter vacation. The university once toyed with an Americanized two semester system but it was a disaster, largely because it did it in a half-hearted way and attempted to keep the Easter vacation in there, so that semester two was in two uneven parts, separated by Easter, and no one came to classes after the Easter vacation. In fact, the move back to three terms there then carried forward the two-semester legacy by minimising the amount of teaching after Easter, making it the big, heavy examinations term.

The long and short of it is that I haven't had to work on a Good Friday or an Easter Monday for a long time, if ever. Nor do many in the UK. Easter Monday is an official bank holiday and lots of people have it at home to do some decorating, watch the Bond film and so on. Good Friday is an odd day, a kind of half-holiday on which many do not work, and there are no postal collections, and I don't think the banks are open; the schools are certainly not. I would always, as a child and a teenager, march through the streets of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, where I was born, on Good Friday at 3 pm as a "witness" to those out on the streets. It was an annual ecumenical event, at which all the churches would unite after the three hour service, at which all the churches came together. I wonder if they still do that?

But coming to America, I find that Good Friday is like any other day. At Duke, most classes continue as normal. This is one of those contradictions that makes living in America so fascinating an experience. As I drove in to Duke yesterday morning, listening to my latest downloads from the BBC on my car radio, I stopped off at our local petrol station (= gas station) and then went in to the post office located inside (yes -- gas stations sometimes have post offices in them) to post off my tax return (itself an interesting story for another day) and I chatted to the lady inside about how interesting it was to me that there were post offices open, and post being picked up and delivered, on Good Friday. The lady shared my surprise since she had moved into the area from Pennsylvania and had imagined that in the Bible belt everyone would be at Church on Good Friday, and not in the shops, at work and at the gas station. The contradiction is that this is a seriously church-going area. There are churches everywhere, some of them enormous, many of them full to the brim on a Sunday morning, and huge car parks scarcely able to accommodate all the SUVs.

Working on a Good Friday was, as it turned out, a rather enjoyable experience. I am one of those lucky people who loves his job, and especially the teaching part, and so I did not at all resent having classes yesterday. Indeed it added something to my Historical Jesus class to be talking about the resurrection accounts (my syllabus planning was not so great that I was doing the crucifixion yesterday) at the appropriate seasonal moment. I met a colleague from the Divinity school just after teaching and he explained to me that in the Divinity school there are no classes on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, and I think that's quite appropriate. Less so for us in the Department of Religion. One of my students told me how the only class she had that day was her Religion class, and that she had had trouble explaining that one to her friends.

But working on Good Friday also enabled me to go to church at Duke for the first time. The chapel had a 12 pm service with a procession around the grounds of the chapel afterwards, and it was a moving service. I was delighted to be able to attend. There was one of those moments that made me want to giggle in the middle of it, though, as a poor chap with a trolly full of sandwiches and cakes kept trying to find his way through the procession to get to the refectory on the other side, and a rather earnest woman eventually felt obliged to exhort him to "show some respect".

There are a couple of other great compensations for working at Easter. One is that we only have a couple of weeks of term left, so there is not that same lengthy working through into the summer that one has in the British Universities. I am genuinely optimistic about my chances of actually getting some serious research done come May. And the weather here is lovely at the moment. It's like a nice British summer's day, hot but with a gentle breeze, and the flowers and blossom are gorgeous. Each day I walk from the car park in Campus Drive through Sarah P. Duke gardens, and stop at odd points on my walk to take it in. The picture at the top of this post is the new bridge that leads into the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, over the stream, on the chapel drive side. Here are some other picturs of Duke on Good Friday. The first shows the wisteria in Sarah Duke Gardens. The next three show other scenes from the same gardens, including a man yesterday painting a pretty decent picture of the yellow flowers at the other exit of the gardens:


crystal said...

Happy Easter to you and Viola, Mark.

Whit said...

Happy Easter!

Michael said...

I suspect that our treatment of Good Friday with ambivalence has much to do with the fact that most evangelical (Protestant) churches in America are fairly ignorant of the church calendar and are wont to ignore everything but Christmas and Easter Sundaym though I see evidence of change here.

Alan S. Bandy said...

I was on campus at Duke last Thursday and was stunned at the sheer beauty of the campus. It is truly one of the finest schools in America. I really enjoyed your post. Take care.