PITTSBURG, Kan. —
It’s hard to say who was having more fun Wednesday morning: retired Joplin machinist Tom Johnston or the 349 Pittsburg elementary students he was assisting onto a train.
The young passengers were wearing their pajamas and robes, while Johnston was dressed in the train conductor uniform he purchased when he joined Heart of the Heartland train club.
“This is so much fun for everyone,” Johnston said with a grin as he helped a class of first-graders aboard.
Seven-year-old Rileigh Manuel agreed.
“The most exciting part is getting on the train,” she said. “I didn’t know what it was going to look like.”
The circa-1956 passenger train was headed south through rural Crawford County countryside, not the North Pole, but it was being billed as the Polar Express as a nod to the Caldecott Medal-winning book of the same name. Published in 1985, “The Polar Express” is widely considered to be a classic Christmas story and was the basis for a 2004 computer-animated film of the same name.
As the book begins, a young boy hears a train whistle and finds a train waiting for him. A conductor tells him the train is called the Polar Express and is journeying to the North Pole. When the boy climbs aboard, he finds chocolate and other candy, as well as other children wearing pajamas.
At the North Pole, Santa picks the boy to receive the first gift of Christmas. The boy requests a bell from one of the reindeer’s harnesses and places it in his robe pocket, but on the train ride home discovers it has fallen through a hole in the pocket.
On Christmas morning, a small package under the tree holds the bell, presumably found by Santa and delivered to his home. Both he and his sister can hear its beautiful sound because they believe; his parents, alas, cannot.
Starting eight to 10 years ago, Heart of the Heartlands partnered with Pittsburg-based Watco transportation company, which owns short-line railroads across the nation, to offer Polar Express rides to students at George Nettels Elementary School who completed reading goals.
“We have 97 percent today who met their goals,” said Susan Ward, the school’s Title I reading coordinator. “That’s an out-of-sight percentage.”
The goals vary by grade level, but include for fourth- and fifth-graders reading a predetermined number of books at a particular difficulty level, and for kindergartners through third-graders reading with parents for 20 minutes at least four evenings each week of the quarter.
“The teachers set the point goal and the percentage goal for completion,” Ward said. “It varies with what’s appropriate for the child and the grade level. They know at the end of the quarter there will be a celebration.”
Looking out the windows as the train lumbered along, 6-year-old Emmanuel Perez saw a flock of Canada geese on the wing, and Anas Alhzarain, 7, saw Cow Creek and several large farms. Many said they’d never been on a train before.
The ride was especially appropriate for children living in Southeast Kansas, Heart of the Heartland member Larry Spahn noted, because the railroad played an important role in the growth and development of the numerous mining towns that dot the map, and in the immigration of the families that settled here.
But the icing on the cake, Ward said, was that the trip so closely aligns with one of the most popular books of the Christmas season. As Santa (who looked somewhat like local attorney Eric Rosenblad) walked through the train cars to greet students, they rang their bells, suspended from ribbons around their necks in replication of the bell in the book and movie.
“Miss White gave me mine this morning,” said Austin Bennett, 6, after jingling his. “I’m going to wear it all day.”
ON FRIDAY, the school will wind up the semester by showing students the movie “The Polar Express.”