All Aboard the Polar Express

If you didn’t hear the sound of jingling silver bells Wednesday afternoon at Sooner Elementary, then you probably could have used a ride on “The Polar Express.”

You would have had company on board the “train” when it left the school that afternoon: about 40 kids ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade (all dressed in their pajamas), a few fifth-grade “helper elves” and four Thunder Girls reading aloud the original Chris Van Allsburg book.

The Thunder Girls joined this magical journey as part of the Thunder’s Reading Timeout program, presented by American Fidelity Assurance Company.

“I walked in not really knowing what to expect, and it was incredible,” said Roy Bishop of American Fidelity. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

At the entrance to a classroom hall stood a locomotive and an overflowing toy car, with a fifth-grader stationed to punch each child’s ticket before they boarded for their journey.

Inside, school staff transformed the narrow hallway into a train bound for the North Pole, just like in the book. The lights were covered, and Christmas lights mimicked starlight on the night train. Each seat was covered in red felt with gingerbread men and Christmas trees sewn on the back.

Holiday music played softly, and train whistles blew quietly, as though in the distance. Frosted windows hung on the paper-wrapped walls with snowflakes and icicles and countryside views.

Once each child took their seat on the train, Thunder Girls Alexis, Kelsey, LaTeshia and Sheri began to read the book about a child’s journey to meet Santa Claus.

“This is just like the movie that we watched!” exclaimed one child after the story began.

Marybeth Gann, one of the teachers who set up the event, said this is the ninth year the school has created a “Polar Express” experience like this, but that they try to do a little more with it every year. This year’s biggest change was asking the Thunder Girls to take part.

“We have so many fans of the Thunder basketball team here (that) we thought (there’s) nobody better than to ask the Thunder Girls to come and read our ‘Polar Express’ story this year,” said Gann.

“The kids really, really look up to … anybody from Thunder Basketball. To get them to come out here – just the looks on (the kids’) faces, they were thrilled. It means so much, and I think we’ll be talking about this for the rest of the school year,” she added.

When the ladies finished the story, which focuses on a gift of a bell from Santa’s sleigh, they asked the children to jingle the silver bells each had been given with their train ticket.

The bells all jingled, and everyone heard their happy sounds – a sign, according to the book’s legend, that they still believed in Santa Claus.

“I still hear my bell, and I’m actually going to be ringing it all day ‘cause I believe,” laughed LaTeshia.

“The kids … are so excited about reading, which makes us excited to come out and read a book to them – and be a part of this awesome experience.”

She noted that the transformation of the school into a storybook train created a richer environment for the kids to engage their imaginations.

“I think they really thought they were on a train and they believed that they were going to the Polar Express, so it was really fun for us to see how engaged they were,” she added.