LUBBOCK, Texas Tom Schlabach was the most popular man at Wester Elementary School this month, not counting that jolly old elf named Claus.
School children mobbed Schlabach, hung on his every word and thanked him with applause.
"You're a lifesaver," one second-grader blurted out as Schlabach delivered hundreds of letters from Santa Claus.
The Wester Elementary stop was part of the daily route for Schla-bach, a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier. The replies from Santa, however, were far from routine: A handful of older Wester Elementary students had helped with the holiday mail crunch by answering the letters as Santa's elves.
It wasn't always easy. Consider the youngster who asked Santa for world peace. What exactly does an elf say to that?
"He will try his best to get you world peace," wrote Elf No.3, Alex Atkinson. "But remember, there are a lot of things Santa can't do."
The crew of Wester elves fourth- and fifth-graders in the gifted and talented program seemed always to find an appropriate reply.
Fourth-grader Darcey Swanson, Elf No. 5, replied to a letter asking for a Play Station video game console platform.
"I said that Santa was asking his best elf to make it right now," she said.
The letters from nearly 200 students in kindergarten and first and second grade were filled with requests for dolls, video games and a variety of toys. The Wester elves began with a form letter and personalized it for each reply, taking care not to get carried away with promises.
"We said that we'd try our hardest to get their Christmas presents," said fifth-grader Paul Stolfo, Elf No. 15. A young girl asked for a ballerina outfit and tutu in one letter he answered.
"I said I hope you look very pretty in your new ballerina outfit," Paul wrote back.
Requests for pets were not uncommon.
"If it was like a pet or something they wanted, we couldn't guarantee that they were going to get it," said fifth-grader Meagan Ramos, Elf No.16.
At times it was difficult for the older students to keep the secret, especially those whose younger siblings had written to Santa. Meagan had to be careful what she said within earshot of her sister, second-grader Denise.
"At home sometimes I had to make sure I didn't blurt it out when she was around and I was telling my mom how many letters I was going to do that day," Meagan said.
A friend of Meagan's replied to the letter from Denise.
"It's really hard to keep secrets," Darcey said. "Your friends and family always ask you what it's about, and when they see letters on your desk they try to look at them, and you have to flip them over."
So the Wester elves stayed after school to answer letters and worked on their replies in the evening at home. They wrote on new cordless AlphaSmart 3000 word processors and transmitted finished letters directly to a classroom printer.
Melissa Lowrie and Stephanie Nations, the school's designated gifted-and-talented teachers, coordinated the work, from students decorating the North Pole Express mailbox outside the school office to distributing letters and collecting the replies.
The Santa letters were stored overnight in the freezer of the refrigerator in the school's staff room before Schlabach delivered them to each classroom.
"We got this just this morning from Santa Claus himself. In fact, it's still cold," Schlabach said to hushed youngsters in classrooms throughout the west Lubbock school.
In teacher Susan Bridges' kindergarten room, he had just started speaking when one wide-eyed youngster grabbed hold of the envelope of letters. Within seconds all her classmates had swarmed to the letter carrier.
"Can we open it?" they asked.
Many schoolchildren were delighted that the letters were cold. They rushed to touch the package or hold it against their faces.
Second-graders in one classroom applauded Schlabach and added a hearty "ho, ho, ho."
In the classroom of teacher Kimberly Mitchell, the special delivery just reinforced what one little girl had believed all along.
"I knew he'd come," the kindergartner said with a smile.
In other classrooms in the building, the Wester elves were no doubt smiling as well.
Paul, Elf No. 15, had admitted part of the job was telling the younger students "stuff that makes them think that Santa's real so they still believe."
And what about 9- and 10-year-olds? Do they still believe in Santa Claus?
Darcey, 9, answered "Not really" following a pause. "A little bit," said Paul, 10. Meagan, 10, added a more forceful "Yes."
That's just one more secret the Wester elves will keep to themselves.
Ray Glass writes for the Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche-Journal.
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