The Magic of Believing

Written by Teresa Dennard.

Primary students experience Christmas train ride

The Polar Express is a story of a young boy on Christmas Eve who boards a magical train that takes him on the ride of his life. Traveling to the North Pole he experiences an extraordinary adventure with other children who are dressed in their pajamas just like him. On this adventure to the North Pole he realizes the magic of believing. The book, written by Chris Van Allsburg, was chosen as the Caldecott Medal winner in 1986. This award is given each year to the artist of the most distinguished American Picture Book for children published in the United States.

Several years ago, Carthage Primary kindergarten teachers Melissa Johnson and Mandy Leggett wanted their students to really experience what they were teaching about the Polar Express. After having read the book to their classes, they planned for the students to see the movie version as well. “We were going to let the children wear their pajamas and serve cookies and milk,” recalls Melissa. “Mandy and I were discussing it out in the hall one day and said it would

be really neat if we could take the children on the Polar Express train ride in Rusk.” They knew the expense and logistics of getting all those children to Rusk was out of the question. For those that know Mandy Leggett…the challenge was on! She came up with the idea to transform an adjacent hallway into the Polar Express. “Mandy had the vision, so we jumped on it and were at the school almost all night getting it ready for the kids. My sister-in-law Shawna, who had a daughter in first grade, helped us out as well.”

They borrowed black plastic from the high school to cover the walls, lined up some chairs, put lights on the floor, added some decorations and they had their very own Polar Express train. “Each year we’ve added onto the project. We made little windows so it looks like a real train,” says Melissa. “When the kids are watching the video, they feel like they’re actually on the train.” When Mandy left, Cheryl Williams stepped in and began helping with the project. She constructed a step-up built out of pallets to replicate boarding the back of the train. “The kids are greeted by a conductor that punches their ticket, and when I crank up the sound kinda loud, the walls shake and it makes it seem like the train is really moving,” tells Cheryl. “It used to take us a week to put all this together, but now we can do most of it within a day’s time.”

It takes almost a week to show the movie to 11 kindergarten classes and 12 first grade classes. It’s a behavioral incentive for the kids. They have to earn the right to ride the train. At the same time the kids in the movie are having hot chocolate and cookies, the Primary kids are having chocolate milk and cookies. At the end, Santa picks one child to receive a special gift…a bell. (Those that can hear the bell ring believe in Santa Claus) As they get off the train, Santa hands all the children a bell. “It’s fun and the kids get so excited,” agree Melissa and Cheryl. “We say every year it’s too much work, but when you see the kids’ faces, it’s all worth it.”

From the book: “At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe."