Nelson’s Column

As I write this in mid December it is around about that time when tabloid newspapers start to bang on about Christmas Scrooges: offices that ban decorations because of health and safety, city councils who won’t put up Christmas lights in case it offends other religions (they mean Muslims) and schools who cancel the nativity for the same reason. I know some people are a little over zealous in their misinterpretation of political correctness, but if you are an inner city school with an equal pupilship of Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and whatever else then why should you simply have Christmas when you have Chanukah, Aashura, and winter solstice vying for attention?
We all know, too, that a lot of these management decisions are often personal decisions dressed up. Let’s say Teacher A and Teacher B don’t get on. Teacher A wants a nativity. The more senior Teacher B says no but can’t say “it’s ‘cos I don’t like Teacher A” so she says “it’s offensive to other religions.” Or maybe the head is just a total skinflint, or didn’t get that bike he wanted when he was ten and so is taking it out on the world. And lets’ face it, Christmas is not compulsory. People don’t care what is being observed. They just want to see their kids on stage.

For instance, up here in Unst, Baltasound Junior High is putting on Bugsy Malone as its Christmas show this year. No shepherds, wise men, mangers, gold, frankincense or myrrh in sight. In fact, in this day and age I’d say that a show about a bunch of dolled up wise guys ‘n’ gals swigging gin, dancing and fighting is a far more prescient way to celebrate the holiday season. Every pupil in the school gets involved, whether singing, dancing, acting, set building, stage managing or playing an instrument. And don’t worry, you won’t see “Rotundly Challenged Sam”, it’s Fat Sam, fair and square. The teachers and pupils at BJH are intelligent enough to know there is a difference between referring to a fictional 1920s character as fat and just walking into a class and shouting “Oi fatty!” at the heavily built kid.

As a writer, actor and expectant parent I am over the moon that the local school has such an enthusiasm for the arts. By the time you read this there is a good chance that my first child will have arrived in to this world. He/she will be born in Paisley, where my wife’s family live, but we have promised Sylvia, local registrar, that we will bring the wee thing back in time to be registered in Unst. My wife is the art teacher at BJH and when she arrived for the interview in summer 2008 she fell in love with Unst. But not just Unst. It was the school itself, and the art room with its kiln and plenty of natural light. It was Maggi and Ann and Ruth and the poly tunnels full of fruit and veg grown and attended by the kids. It was Mr McConnell and the way he championed technical for girls and had the pupils build picnic tables for the nursery school.

Pretty soon after we moved into Baltasound we fell in love too with the community. We loved the support we got from all of our neighbours, with their home grown veg, fresh eggs and locally caught fish; the local musicians with their concert nights at the hall; the fundraisers for the youth club, school sailing trips to Norway and nursery school gym equipment.

So much activity revolves around the school. I am currently involved with Unst Audio, a group dedicated to preserving Unst’s musical culture, which operates out of the “Big Jangly Hut”, a building separate from the main school – perfect for drum students – and the best equipped music department I’ve ever seen. My wife runs the jewellery classes on Tuesday nights – one of the most overly subscribed and best attended courses in all of Adult Learning. Every year the pupils design, build and paint the galley shields for the Uyeasound and Norwick Up Helly A’s.

When you add it all up you realise that the school is the community. It is the sole reason we repopulated Unst to the tune of three. When my wife and I saw how confident, open minded and mutually supportive the kids were at BJH and how they grow up into well rounded high achieving adults, we knew we wanted our children to grow up in this particular community and attend that particular school – eco-friendly, community-driven, high-achieving: it’s as perfect a school as you can get.

That’s if it stays open, of course. But what kind of moron would want to close down a school like that?

Sandy Nelson


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