Origami folding is a healing gift from student at FishHawk Creek

Published Sept. 6, 2013

Monday after school, her classroom sits quiet, desks empty, lights off, except for one.

In the corner, on the bookshelf near tissues and Clorox wipes, the light pools from a school bus lamp. Nearby sits an apple Post-it note holder, an orange Zoe Koosh ball with a pink ribbon, and two paper cranes, one pink, one blue.

The origami figures were gifts. And there are 998 more just like them, made mostly by one small pair of hands that folded, unfolded, then folded again and again until a square of paper became a bird and a pastime became a cause.

Over the summer, as Jane Farkas, a second-grade teacher at FishHawk Creek Elementary School in Lithia, was treated for breast cancer. Max Clarke, her former student, created cranes for a wish.

That wish was pretty simple: He wanted his teacher to get better.

Busy hands

When her middle child was little, Sarah Clarke knew she could get an hour of things done if she gave him a stack of paper and some scissors. Now 8, Max skateboards, plays soccer, builds with Legos and rarely needs help with math.

"It's pretty easy," he says. "I just like using my brain a lot."

He likes using his hands a lot, too.

Last winter, Max started searching for origami folds on YouTube. He'd watch, then fold. If he couldn't get it right, he'd try again. He started with water bombs. Then he found cranes.

Max was a second-grader at FishHawk Creek Elementary School at the time, and he sat up front in Farkas' class. He liked her. She always stopped to help when kids needed it.

Sometimes, he'd grab a nearby stack of yellow Post-its and make his own foldings or flip books. In class, under his desk, he was always folding, unfolding and folding again.

One day before school ended, Max noticed a lot of the teachers wore purple T-shirts. They read: "Team Jane." He didn't know why.

Then, in June, Max sat at the kitchen table with his mom, who teaches at FishHawk Creek, and her co-teacher.

I heard you can fold things, Mary Giglio said to Max. What can you fold?

Cranes, he told her, swans, water bombs, tables, envelopes, fortune tellers, ninja stars.

Make me a crane, the teacher asked, and he started folding.

A bit later, Max noticed his mom and Giglio got quieter as they spoke. They started crying. He was watching, Sarah Clarke realized, and listening. She needed to tell him.

Max, she said, did you know Mrs. Farkas has cancer?

He didn't. What can we do? he asked.

Everything that had happened so far that night started to fit together, and Sarah Clarke remembered the Japanese story of 1,000 cranes that she'd first learned of years ago when a fellow teacher displayed the Origami cranes she'd gotten as a gift in Japan.

His mom told the story to Max. If someone folds 1,000 cranes, they get a wish for luck, long life or good health.

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Max liked it. Maybe you could raise money for Mrs. Farkas to help with unexpected costs, said Mike Clarke, Max's dad. Max liked it. I could sell them for a dollar each, he said, and raise $1,000.

The next morning, Sarah Clarke contacted Farkas' co-teacher to see what she thought of the plan. Then Max folded the first crane.


The moment came, around the 500th crane, when Max wanted to quit. Folding cranes wasn't hard, but it took time. He'd sit at the kitchen table, or escape to the quiet dining room if things got too hectic, and fold, unfold, then fold again.

"I just got a little tired," he says.

Mike Clarke, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, set out a plan of action. He'd learned to fold, so had his wife, and they had two folding parties with several of Max's former classmates. The goal was to have all 1,000 cranes finished in time for the final summer concert Aug. 16 at FishHawk Creek.

Mike Clarke started a Facebook page in August and officially announced his son's project, Cranes For Jane, once he thought they would actually meet their goal.

He helped and watched Max work, hoping his son was learning that sometimes, a good idea isn't enough. Sometimes, to help people, you work, you plan and work some more.

Max kept folding.

On Aug. 12, just before bedtime, he folded his 1,000th crane. He felt relieved. And exhausted. He went right to bed.

Keep folding

On Aug. 16, neon green and pink cranes hung from a child's booth at Park Square. People placed guesses on how many cranes piled into a tall glass vase and paid $1 each to pull cranes from a big box.

That night, while Farkas sat through chemotherapy, they sold 500 cranes.

As of Aug. 24, Cranes for Jane raised more than $1,000, Mike Clarke says. (Sometimes, people pay more than $1 and take just one crane).

The family plans to sell the cranes again around the community, and Mike Clarke says more than 25 businesses have donated classes, products and prizes to help. But they're not done.

"We're gonna keep folding," he says.

The Clarkes plan on making Cranes for Jane a nonprofit organization, one that can help other teachers facing cancer.

"We're gonna keep folding," Sarah Clarke agrees.

They plan to give Farkas the money they've raised soon. And Max hopes that money helps her get better.

"What we were mainly thinking she was going to do is, like, spend it for all the strong medicines that she has to afford to get rid of the cancer," Max said.

The art of persistence

In Japanese culture, the crane is considered a sacred bird, in some legends living for 1,000 years. Over time, says Laura Lee, an assistant professor of Japanese studies at Florida State University, the crane was connected to luck and wishes because of that long life. Folding 1,000 cranes for that luck, wish or health was the next logical progression, she says.

Cranes specifically became connected with cancer after World War II, as people faced radiation sickness from the bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And it's not easy. The process of Senbazuru, or 1,000 cranes, takes discipline, precision and focus.

"It's not like you lick 1,000 envelopes," Lee says.

It's not like throwing a penny into a fountain.

Instead, folding cranes shows commitment, that you're willing to work for your luck and earn your wish.

Max, his family and friends have certainly earned theirs.

And Farkas, who has three daughters of her own, has persisted, too. She'll continue chemotherapy for a handful of weeks before beginning radiation. For now, she teaches, gets treatment, then teaches again.

This year, Max sits and folds ninja stars and water bombs under the desk in his third-grade class. He sees Farkas some days after school. She looks the same, he says. Just her hair is shorter.

Last year, if he got into trouble in her classroom, it was for folding. One day, Farkas caught him mid crease making a swan. She took it away.

Now, she feels bad that she ever asked him to stop.

But it's okay, he says.

He never did.

Kristen Hare can be reached at