When Sally Hughes looks at the ceiling these days at St. Mary School in Riverside, the veteran third-grade teacher shakes her head in amazement.
That’s because Hughes is still astonished that there are 1,000 paper cranes hanging from the ceiling.
“It’s amazing, and really a beautiful sight to see,” Hughes said.
Little did Hughes realize when she assigned her class to read the book, “Sadako,” that St. Mary would become a make-shift memorial.
The book is a true story about Sadako Sasaki, who was a young Japanese girl that developed leukemia in 1955 from the effects of radiation caused by the bombing of Hiroshima.
When Sasaki was hospitalized, her closest friend reminded her of the Japanese legend that stated if she folded a 1,000 paper cranes, the gods might grant her wish to be well again.
Hoping that legend was true, a determined Sasaki began folding.
“We’ve always read the book in my class,” Hughes said. “But we’ve never done the cranes, because it’s a little tough for the kids to do. There are 32 steps to making a crane, and most of the kids get to step 16 before having trouble.”
But that’s where Mary Vogt, an fifth-grade teacher at the school, came in. Vogt’s father-in-law, Erhard, agreed to fold the cranes for Hughes’ class back in September.
“My father-in-law has been folding these cranes for a very long time,” Vogt said. “My husband remembers him doing it when he was a child, and he would fold them for my children when they were young. I think he used them as a distraction when he worked as a trouble shooter for a paper mill company.
“He and my mother-in-law recently moved into a retirement center in Downers Grove and needed something to do. I knew the third graders were reading the book, and I thought it would be good for them to see what 1,000 cranes looked like. [Erhard] worked on them since September, one bag at a time.”
With the help of some eighth-grade students, Hughes decided to hang them in a hallway at the school. That way not only her class would feel the impact, but the entire school.
“It is magnificent,” Vogt said. “My father-in-law is coming in [today] to see the cranes. The students are looking forward to meeting him, because they find it hard to believe that one person did this.”
Since Sasaki’s death, the paper crane has become an international symbol of peace in recent years as a result of its connection to the story.
Sasaki, who was born in 1943, was 2 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Sasaki was a strong, courageous and athletic girl during her youth. But while practicing for a big race in 1955, she became dizzy and fell to the ground.
Sasaki was later diagnosed with leukemia, the “atom bomb” disease.
She started to work on the paper cranes and completed over 1,000 before dying in 1955 at the age of 12.
“I almost cried during the book, because it was a sad story,” said Lindsey Torphy, who is a third grader at the school. “The cranes are beautiful. They are all different sizes and colors. Everyone was excited to see them when they were hung in the halls.”
One of the main points Hughes wanted her class to understand is that Sasaki never gave up. She continued to make paper cranes until she died.
Inspired by her courage and strength, Sasaki’s friends and classmates put together a book of her letters and published it. They also began dream of building a monument to Sasaki and all of the children killed by the atomic bomb. Young people all over Japan helped collect money for the project.
“I didn’t know much about World War II until I read the book,” said Conor Dunham, also a third grader at the school. “It was really interesting, and now it’s cool to see the cranes.”
In 1958, a statue of Sasaki holding a golden crane was unveiled in Hiroshima Peace Park. People all over the world fold paper cranes and send them to Sasaki’s monument in Hiroshima on a daily basis.
“We plan to send our cranes there, too,” said Hughes, referring to the Hiroshima Peace Park memorial. “I really think by seeing the cranes, the kids appreciate the story even more. There was a lot of emotion and cultural diversity throughout the book. They learned a lot, and had a good time doing it.”