Who doesn’t know about the Chris Van Allsburg Polar Express? The story about a mysterious train arriving in the middle of the night, a trip north through jagged mountains and cold winter landscape to the North Pole is a classic. It should be required seasonal reading along with A Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Yes, required. There, at the pole, Santa stands in a square, sleigh loaded and surrounded by throngs of elves to present the first gift of Christmas to a small boy. The sleigh bell that he gives out is promptly lost to the utter dismay of the boy, and if you don’t know the ending of the story...it’s time to dig up your old copy. It’s a children’s story, but it’s a timeless life reminder about the importance of belief, wonder, and the power of the imagination.
I write about this every year. It’s probably tiresome by now - for some - to hear about the sleigh bell in my office, given to me years ago by the two dirt fishermen who found it with a metal detector somewhere in the vicinity of the two big oaks trees just to the east of my garage. The bell is heavy. Its ring is more chuckle than tinkle. Paul and Dave gave it to me cleaned of the dirt that clogged it, burnished to a warm silvery glow. It sits on the shelf next to a Lakota talking stick and a student fired raku vase. Sometimes I pick it up to feel its heft and to hear the round slug of what I imagine to be precious metal rolling around inside, and just the simple weight of that bell offers restorative ballast to any day. It’s quite a gift.
A reminder of the story itself - yes - but more importantly it nudges me back into wonderment, imagination and generosity. Just picking it up can decouple a frown from my face or spin me into a smile. It whispers this message: you have to believe. Not in any heavy-handed, ham fisted, cudgel wielding you’re with me or against me tone, but more as a reminder of possibility and grace. Just picking the bell up can make me rethink my course through an hour, a day, a week. Such a gift, and hopefully we all have one tucked on a shelf somewhere, is not to be lost.
In the Polar Express, the bell is heard by those who believe that Santa, the elves, and the North Pole are real. They are not fanciful whims. Those prancing reindeer, that sleigh, those presents piled high - real. Or at least possible. But in the story there are those who cannot hear the bell, cannot hear its chuckle, and have somehow fallen away from belief. The sense of loss, of flattening dimensions, is palpable and sad. When I pick up the bell in my office, I also think about the possibility of community, of Proctor, our students, our families, our faculty and staff. We have our own little polar express here, our own bell that I still hear and believe in when I pick up the sleigh bell in my office or when I hear the bell atop Maxwell Savage ring out. There is something here to believe in, something that is magical.
A story, a bell, a community bring me to possibility, wonderment, grace...and belief.
Mike Henriques P'11, P'15
Proctor Academy Head of School