Paper Hearts

By Loren Hardenbergh

Commemorating Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month held particular significance this spring in the face of the most recent wave of violence and anti-AAPI racism in the country. Along with Erika Lee’s Zeidman lecture on the history of anti-Asian racism, visits by children’s book illustrator and author Grace Lin, and other events, the Sidwell Friends community gathered to do what we’ve done for decades as we strive for peace and healing during difficult times: We folded.

In the spring of 1987, as the District awaited the emergence of the Brood X cicadas, students were studying all things Japan in anticipation of the Japanese Language and Culture Program trip that summer, which launched in 1985 with the help of U.S.-Japan Culture Center president and Sidwell Friends parent Mikio Kanda (P '86, '89).

In their studies, they read the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr. Sadako was a toddler when her hometown of Hiroshima was bombed, and she later developed leukemia from the radiation. According to Japanese legend, if you fold a thousand paper cranes, you are granted a wish. After Sadako's passing, thousands of paper cranes have been left at the Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima Peace Park in her honor. That summer, four students and advisor Ellen Pierson placed 4,000 paper cranes at the base of Sadako’s statue, and a Sidwell Friends tradition was born.

Folding origami cranes for the School’s student peace ambassadors to bring to Hiroshima each year has been a regular spring occurrence at Founder’s Day and other Sidwell Friends events for decades now. Some alumni may even remember sitting under the cherry blossom trees in the courtyard near the Kogod Arts Center with Michiko Yamaoka, a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima who served as Peace Speaker and became a longtime friend of the School. Only 15 years old when the bomb dropped, Yamaoka-san felt connected to the Friends community after living with Quakers while receiving over 25 procedures for the disfigurement caused by the radiation. For decades, students who participated in the Japan trip had the unforgettable experience of being a personal guest of Yamaoka-san while visiting Hiroshima.

Not all of these cranes have flown across the Pacific. Several student art displays over the years have become a part of campus life. While some may suspect the Upper School’s Crane Room next to the cafeteria is named for a celebrated teacher or benefactor with the surname “Crane,” it is in fact named after the tradition of folding paper cranes for peace. The original student mural covering two walls of the Crane Room depicted an origami crane transitioning into a flying crane as it travels from the DC campus to Hiroshima. Today, another student-painted origami crane mural greets families in the parking structure each day during student pickup and drop-off. 

In April 2019, another tragic bombing took place in Asia, this time in Sri Lanka. It prematurely ended the life of one of our cherished students, Kieran Shafritz de Zoysa ’26. Overcome with grief and a sense of helplessness in the face of violence, the Asian Students Association created an origami crane art installation that the student organizers hope will “be a reminder to future generations that in unity we may find the strength to overcome bigotry and violence.”

After a year of assaults and animosity toward Asian Americans, Lower, Middle, and Upper School students again felt called to transform square pieces of paper into thousands of cranes of peace. In a year when many School traditions have had to be modified or postponed due to the pandemic, these students have continued what decades of alumni have done before them—they folded, they reflected, and they hoped for peace.

1. Students gather in front of the Kogod Arts Center on Founder’s Day in the 1980s to fold origami cranes.

2. Members of the Community Action Committee designed and painted the mural that depicted the theme of the Crane Room, dedicated in 1988.

3. Students take in the many thousands of origami cranes placed at the Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park while on the annual Japan trip in 1990.

4. Seeing Hiroshima through Michiko Yamaoka’s eyes was for decades the most impactful part of the annual Japan trip.

5. A student hangs the Sidwell Friends senbazuru (strands of 1,000 cranes)
at the Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park during the 60th anniversary of the atomic bomb in 2005.

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Sidwell Friends Alumni Magazine is published three times a year for the community. It features School news, stories, profiles, and alumni Class Notes.

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