It started out as a lesson about ancient Japan.
That's how Fort Mill Middle School teacher John Buchanan first told his all-girl class about Sadako, a Japanese girl who wanted nothing more than to run track. Instead, she made 1,000 paper cranes after becoming gravely ill.
"We were just talking about the ancient Japanese culture," Buchanan said of his social studies class. "They believed that somebody who has 1,000 paper cranes gets a wish. Usually, it's for happiness, long life or health."
That conversation was brief.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald
"I taught them how to make the cranes as a part of wrapping up our study of ancient Japan," he said.
Then, on April 22, the unthinkable happened, Buchanan said.
"I woke up that morning and didn't make it to school," he said. "I was having chest pains. By the time I got to the hospital, they found three arteries that were blocked. The next day, they did a triple bypass."
Back at Fort Mill Middle, Buchanan's class didn't know exactly what was wrong, but they knew something wasn't right. "Mr. B," as they called him, wasn't there. In his place was a substitute teacher. At some point, teachers told them tidbits about a heart attack, blocked arteries and triple bypass, said Hannah Harvey, 12.
"He was having triple bypass surgery," the rising seventh grader said. "We wanted him to get better. After learning about the legend, our wish was that he'd get better."
The 19 girls embarked on a mission less than two days later, Hannah said.
"We were worried about him," she said.
So they made the cranes -- 1,000 of them -- to earn and give a wish just so Buchanan's good heath could return, according to Japanese culture.
"We were just trying to find a way to make Mr. B feel better," said Ryan Kaye Richardson, a 12-year-old rising seventh grader. "The story seemed so important to him. He taught us how to make the cranes before he left. We wanted to take those skills, combine them and make a present."
But there was a problem: only a few of the girls knew how to make the cranes. So, they taught each other the art, Ryan said.
"We'd sit in class after we did our work and fold paper cranes," she explained. "We decorated the paper to make them as special as we could. It just met so much to all of us. He is such a great teacher."
Taylor Bunge, 11, cranked out about 100 cranes, she said.
"The day he showed us [and] the next day he wasn't there," she recalled. "We were all wondering why.
"I really care about him," she added. "I was scared because they said he had blockages. We really didn't understand what was going on."
But the girls understood enough to know that the situation was critical. They abandoned recess and put down books during stints in the hallway to fold cranes for nearly three weeks. Even spare time at home was devoted to making crane, said Ryan's mother, Joanne Richardson.
"She was up in her bedroom furiously making cranes one evening," Richardson recalled. "She was cutting white paper, coloring it with crayons and then folding it into cranes. They came out beautiful, all different designs."
Richardson said the unselfish act demonstrated by the class was the epitome of their character.
"They were only reflecting back on what he's given them," she said. "They were trying to get 1,000 so they could get their wish. Their wish was for Mr. B to get well."
That was a few days before the group planned to surprise Mr. B. Meanwhile, the teacher-turned-patient was making limited visits to the school.
"I would see the kids just for a few minutes," he said.
Then one day, the kids laid down the law, he said.
"They just insisted that I come back," he said. "They had something they wanted to give me."
So, he came back.
"They had this box," he recalled. "When I opened the box, it was full of cranes. From them. They made little ones and great big ones.
"I could not believe that they had picked up on the significance of these cranes to the Japanese and transferred it to something that was going on in their life."
For the effort, Buchanan felt better.
"I was floored," Buchanan admitted. "I couldn't believe that they had time to do this. Nineteen girls and 1,000 cranes is a lot. My first question was, 'You didn't do this during class?'"
The memory of the question triggered brief laughter, but the girls were serious about their endeavor, Hannah's mother, Sally, said.
"A lot of hard work," she said of the effort. "It shows that they were dedicated to helping someone who has given them so much of himself to teach them history. They just wanted to give back."
Last week, Mr. B and some of his girls poured the cranes across a table. Then they admired them.
"A lot of them had notes on them," he said. "That just made it more special."
Then the girls made more cranes for the teacher they refused to give up on.
"This means I get an extra measure of good health," he said of three additional cranes. What do you think we should do with 1,003 cranes? Maybe, we should pass them on to someone else who needs a wish."
Sadako, who folded 644 cranes, didn't get her wish.
"She died at 10 years old," Buchanan said. "She developed leukemia."
But Mr. B got the wish afforded him by the acts of his class. So much so that he will return to school in August when his girls come back to start their new year.
For Hannah and her classmates, there are no regrets for sacrificing their time.
"We really love Mr. B," Hannah said. "It was worth it."