An education in peace
FLC undertakes uncommon experience

SideStory: Sowing the seeds of peace on the Fort Lewis College Campus

Bridget Irish, a Fort Lewis College faculty member and the creator of the Common Reading Experience, unfurls a string of paper cranes at the college’s Hesperus Park on Tuesday. The education effort is in its first year and its focus is peace. In this spirit, Hesperus Park will be renamed Hesperus Peace Park during a ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 11./Photos by Jared Boyd

by Will Sands

The Japanese girl Sadako was 2 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. She survived the initial impact, but nine years later was diagnosed with leukemia, “the atom bomb disease.” In hopes of being granted a wish and regaining her health, Sadako honored a Japanese legend and started folding a thousand paper cranes. Less than a year after the diagnosis, Sadako passed away having completed only 644 cranes. Her friends and classmates took up the charge and began folding the remaining origami cranes. Today, people around the world continue to fold cranes in Sadako’s memory and in hopes of creating an enduring peace.

Fort Lewis College freshmen are all getting on the same page this year with Sadako’s experience at the forefronts of their minds. For the first time ever, students, faculty and community members are taking part in the Common Reading Experience. The hope is that the greater Fort Lewis College community can share a common experience by reading the same book and focusing on the same concept – peace.

“We’re always looking for ways to provide experiences for students that connect them to the faculty in ways beyond just taking a class,” commented Bridget Irish, a faculty member in Fort Lewis’ writing program and the creator of the Common Reading Experience. “The goal of the Common Reading Experience is to find a common ground for sharing ideas between students, faculty, the community and the administration.”

To find this common ground, a committee of students, faculty and staff turned to a familiar source – Professor Emeritus Leonard “Red Bird’s book, Folding Paper Cranes: An Atomic Memoir. Named for Sadako’s final gesture, Folding Paper Cranes is Bird’s story of his time as an atomic veteran. In 1957, Bird, a U.S. Marine, witnessed the test detonation of Shot Hood, a device six times the size of Little Boy, the atomic bomb that was detonated over Hiroshima. A mere 4,000 yards from the impact zone, Bird and others were ordered to face an explosion that rose 60,000 feet in the air and rained down fire and radiation across a wide expanse of the Nevada desert. Bird juxtaposes this experience with his diagnosis 45 years later of multiple myeloma, a bone-blood cancer linked directly to radiation poisoning, as well as several visits to the International Park of World Peace.

“Folding Paper Cranes deals with many important themes,” explained Pam Arbeeny, a Fort Lewis librarian and chair of the committee that selected the book. “There are a lot of challenges out there in the world right now, and the book is a great place to start on dealing with those challenges. I think it’s a book that touches many different people.”

More than 900 books were gifted by Fort Lewis to incoming freshmen, and Folding Paper Cranes has been used in classrooms, in discussions and has been the focus of several co-curricular events this semester. Freshmen also were ushered into their first year at Fort Lewis by Bird himself, who served as the speaker at the college’s recent convocation. Bird will also return Oct. 11 for the renaming of the college’s Hesperus Park, and as the semester progresses, there will be a screening and discussion of the film “The Day After Trinity,” a panel discussion and debate on the decision to drop the bomb, and a forum on uranium’s legacy in the Four Corners region. Throughout the experience, peace has been and will be the underlying message.

“The book and the Common Reading Experience are not trying to slam any one theory of peace down anyone’s throat,” Irish said. “They are both just posing the question of ‘How do we work toward peace?’”

Folding Paper Cranes and the Common Reading Experience are also moving beyond roundtable discussions and into the Fort Lewis College curriculum. The college is restructuring its general education program to focus on global citizenship. The themes inherent in Bird’s book and the Common Reading Experience play directly into becoming a better world citizen.

“Recently at Fort Lewis we have developed a new theme for our general education program, which is global citizenship,” Irish said. “One way to help students look at the idea of being global citizens is through this book and understanding Japan, World War II, the nuclear revolution and the effects of the atomic bomb on our current political structure. That all comes out of this book and ties in with being responsible global citizens.”

The current international political climate provides an excellent backdrop for these kinds of discussions, according to Irish and Arbeeny. Wars in the Middle East and instability elsewhere in the world are hard realities for Fort Lewis College students, making peace particularly an especially poignant concept at this time.

“I truly believe that we need to be thinking about bringing more peace to our world,” Arbeeny said. “We look around and see so many volatile situations. I think these discussions of peace are going to be crucial to the future for our students. I’d love to see a more formal peace studies program promoted.”

A more formal peace studies program could be coming down the pipe, in part because of a Common Reading Experience that is already being judged as successful. Irish noted that there is talk of developing an actual Peace Studies major.

“What we’re hoping might come out of this shared discussion is that the college might develop a curriculum called Peace Studies, which is something that is already in place at several other colleges and universities,” she said. “What we would want to do is put together a collection of classes and create a major. Next semester, we’re already putting together a learning community in that direction. It’s a phenomenal outgrowth of this Common Reading Experience.”

The understanding that peace begins at the most personal level is another phenomenal outgrowth of the Common Reading Experience. Even though the experiment is only in its first year, Arbeeny is already giving it high marks.

“Part of this program is about making connections through a shared intellectual experience,” she said. “I’ve made numerous new links with students, faculty members and people in the community. For me, it’s already been really successful adventure.” •