It’s train week at Somerset Academy of Las Vegas, 7038 Sky Pointe Drive.
Second-graders in their pajamas talk excitedly among themselves outside one of the classrooms of their public charter school before their art teacher, Larry McKnight, lines them up and asks to see their tickets.
“You’re right on time,” he says. “Tickets, please, let me see your tickets.”
Students raise their hands, holding their invisible tickets. Once he punches a hole through the tickets, it’s all aboard Mr. McKnight’s Polar Express, a 50-minute experience that teaches children about trains and the important role they had in shaping Las Vegas.
“This is a fun way to teach them about the history of the United States,” McKnight said. “Trains are actually part of Las Vegas history. The town was started by the railroads in 1905.”
McKnight has been a teacher in the Las Vegas Valley for 26 years. He began collecting trains approximately 10 years ago.
“I remember playing with trains when I was a little boy. My father had them in the basement. After he passed away, I got the trains that I used to play with and began fixing them,” McKnight said. “I started playing with them and thought it was fun. Now, it has turned into a hobby, to put it lightly.”
He said he spent 10 years creating a layout for his model trains complete with mountains, a zoo and other scenery in his garage.
He also builds monuments, such as Mount Rushmore, out of Styrofoam.
After he began teaching art last year at Somerset, he decided to merge his hobby with his job.
“Mr. McKnight is an amazing teacher,” said principal Gayle Jefferson. “He brought this idea to me last year, and I try to support the teachers in any interest they have that can be used to build experience for our students. They love it.”
He spent 30 hours during Thanksgiving weekend with his family to build a train model track inside the school’s library, where his wife works as a part-time librarian.
“I’m glad he was able to set up his trains here,” said his wife, Cathy. “There’s no more room in the house for his trains.”
Students in kindergarten to fifth grade prepare for the course by watching the movie “The Polar Express” and then walking to the upstairs library, where McKnight has a train model layout with approximately 10 tracks, trains and animated figurines.
Included is an Area 51 train that carries extraterrestrials and a train that lets out a holiday scent-infused smoke when it catches on “fire.”
Children sit on cushions on the floor and watch the trains pass by with smiles and delight.
“It’s exciting because we get to see the trains move,” said second-grader Luke Apple. “I’ve always liked moving vehicles.”
Parents and grandparents are invited to participate in the action as well; the McKnights set up chairs in the front for them to view the trains.
“Trains are so interesting, and this is really a dying art,” said Lori Watts, grandmother of a student. “These students are lucky to have someone like Mr. McKnight. He teaches them in a fun and creative way.”
Jefferson said many parents and grandparents have shared their stories about the time they spent on the railroads or of their ancestors who contributed to building the city.
“Through teaching this course, I found that many children here have descendants that go back to the early settlers of Las Vegas,” McKnight said.
On the Friday before Christmas break and after showing it to the last class, the couple carefully take the collection and put it away for next year.
Cathy said it takes them hours to put everything away, and that it’s an expensive hobby to participate in. She estimates that her husband spends $300 to $500 on train sets, but he said he won’t be stopping his hobby-turned-obsession anytime soon.
“It brings back memories that I had growing up as a kid,” McKnight said. “Plus, I want to help create new memories with children.”
Contact North View reporter Sandy Lopez at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4686. Find her on Twitter: @JournalismSandy.