Hearing, Listening, and The Polar Express

“You must have hated The Polar Express when you were a kid,” my friend Stacy said to me.

The two of us were sitting in our class, Writing for Children, talking about picture books. As the semester came to a close, we were finishing our unit on illustrated stories, and meandered to The Polar Express. Being a Caldecott-winning story adapted into a movie, it was an ideal book for class discussion. Most of my classmates heard it at least once, and had their own stories about hearing it for the first time. Mine was not particularly memorable, seeing as I was nine and the elementary school librarian read it to my class.

At least…I did not think it was memorable until Stacy pointed out a central theme to the story.


“What?” I asked.

“They always talk about being able to hear Santa’s bells. That must have hurt for a kid who couldn’t hear.”

Truth be told, my problems with ear infections and hearing loss were the furthest things from my mind when I first heard The Polar Express. Library time was a well-deserved relief from straining to hear my teacher, who jabbed me every time she thought I was not listening. Our librarian knew my problems were based in hearing, rather than listening, and always projected her voice for me. Even though my eardrums were flaking away, I was sick every two weeks, and the teacher who jabbed me insisted I needed ADHD drugs, none of that mattered the moment library time began. Each story the librarian carried me to new, spectacular places and allowed me to forget my health and hearing problems.

The Polar Express emphasizes hearing Santa’s bells as a sign that one believes in the magic of Christmas. After travelling to the North Pole, the narrator requests one of Santa’s bells as a Christmas present. On Christmas morning, the narrator’s parents cannot hear the bell while he and his sister, Sarah, hear its crystalline ringing. At the end of the story, the narrator says, “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 at one Christmas 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.”

From Stacy’s perspective, I could see why such an idea would be painful for a child with hearing loss. On the library floor, however, my nine-year-old self was not thinking of hearing at all. Instead, she had just been to The North Pole with the narrator, and understood that the bell’s sound came from belief in Santa. Hearing his bells came from listening with your heart instead of partially functional ears. All the people in the story presumably had normal hearing, yet one by one, most of them lost their ability to hear the bell. Only the narrator hears because he continued to believe in Santa, the North Pole, and Christmas magic. Nine-year-old me thought about listening with her heart, rather than her ears, and loved the idea that hearing things extended beyond sound.

As I have gotten older, I have found that this sentiment extends beyond of believing in Santa. With or without a concrete North Pole and Santa, the importance of listening with one’s heart cannot be denied. One may be able to hear sound, but that does not mean the sound is understood. This idea seems contradictory until you consider people who hear conversational words, but do not listen to their meaning. Another example includes instrumentalists who hit notes, but cannot make music because they do not express emotion. Even as a little girl with ear problems, I understood these ideas from spending days trying to find meaning in what little I could hear.
That’s why I told Stacy in class discussion, “Actually, no. I found The Polar Express very reassuring. Even if I couldn’t hear from afar, I always thought I’d hear Santa’s bells directly under the tree because I believe in him.”

Belief in anything or anyone cannot replace the ear’s ability to process sound and send it to the brain. No story or idea can stand in for our senses, but it can help us make the most of how much or little we may have. The Polar Express helped me look beyond hearing and start to understand listening and emotion in sounds, which are not easy to comprehend even if one is not hard of hearing. Sound transmission may be critical to our day-to-day lives, but as The Polar Express taught me, it’s the meaning behind sound that makes it worth hearing.

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