Trains Planes and Automobiles, But Really Mostly Just Trains

MaryKate is participating with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) as an Outreach Assistant for Mustard Seed.  

JVC is the largest lay Catholic full-time volunteer program in the world. They aim to aspire the creation of a more just and hopeful world. Therefore, this service program “engages passionate young people in vital service with poor communities, fostering the growth of leaders committed to faith in action”(JVC).   Continue reading to learn how trains connect with Mustard Seed’s students. 


When I was three, my uncle bought me a train set for Christmas that he set up under our tree. I have vague memories of this, mostly fed by my uncle’s continued interest in all things train-related—photographing trains, touring retired trains, riding a train just for the sake of riding a train… But other than this snippet of memory from my childhood, I have not often focused on trains other than a vehicle by which to get from point A to point B. This changed when I started working at Mustard Seed in August. On August 23rd, the first day of school, trains became a very important part of my life. Here are some things I have learned about trains since then:

Mustard Seed students attended a field trip to the California State Railroad Museum.

1.     “Can I play with the trains?” is something that you will hear (conservatively) four-five times a day if there are trains in your office. The asking will be relentless; crying may ensue.

2.     Trains are gender all-inclusive toys. Don’t let the marketing industry tell you otherwise. Everyone loves trains. Every child will beeline for a train set immediately upon entering a room with a train set. Every. Single. Child. Without fail. Every time.

3.     Your primary function in the lives of many if not most of the children will, at least initially, be The Teacher With The Trains. You will become the gatekeeper to the trains. This is the sole purpose you will serve. The trains may make you powerful. Use this power wisely.

4.     It is 2017 and technology is Ruler Supreme, but all screens are forgotten when presented with train tracks and a plethora of toy trains from which to choose. Long, uninterrupted conversations with parents may be had when there are trains to serve as a distraction.

5.     Some people discover their passions at a young age. Some people are passionate about trains. If you are helping a train-enthusiast seven-year-old with his morning journal entry, and the prompt is, “What is your favorite type of weather?” the answer will be trains. If the prompt is, “What makes you happy?” the answer will be trains. If the prompt is, “What is your favorite thing to eat?” the answer will probably be chicken, but he will draw a picture of trains.

6.     Sometimes, this same seven year old may ask you to help him draw a train. I would suggest practicing your train-drawing skills beforehand, because train-enthusiasts (even young ones, apparently) are not afraid to critique an inaccurate rendering of a train when they see one. You have to draw trains with more wheels than cars. I learned this the hard way.

7.     If you do not have access to a train set, worms are a close second. After time spent gardening in Mustard Seed’s two gardening plots with our K-2nd graders, I’ve observed that trains and worms seem to generally attract the same fan-base. And it is an avid fan-base indeed.

8.     A caveat about trains and worms: A toy train is okay to send home with a child. Moms like toy trains. Moms do not like worms. Do not let said child show their mom the worms they collected that day, no matter how excited they are about their worms. The mom will not be pleased. The mom may even be disgusted. Send home a toy train instead.

9.     If it is the first field trip of the school year—the first field trip ever for many of our students—go to the train museum. You will witness pure expressions of joy that, in grown-up equivalencies, are probably only matched at weddings or births (if even then). Everyone will be excited about the train museum. Refer to point 2.

10.  Childhood looks like childhood looks like childhood. That is, kids will be kids and trains will bring joy no matter where the child slept the night before. There is a beautiful consistency in the reaction a child has upon recognizing a train set: the excitement, the explorative energy, and the pointedly focused play that will ensue (a sort of focus I have rarely witnessed anywhere else, with children or adults). It is simple, and it is powerful.

In conclusion, it is important to pay attention to trains. It is important to think about memories of trains you might have from your own childhood. It is important to thank your uncle for the train set he got you when you were three, because who knew how important this childhood point of reference would become for you twenty years later. Whenever you see a train, perhaps you should take notes. That way, the next time a seven year old asks for help with his journal entry, you will be prepared to draw a train with the correct number of wheels.


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