It all started with a boat.
By Amya Miller
Actually, it started with the tsunami that hit Rikuzentakata back in 2011, but the miracle part of the story starts with a boat. Takata High School has a Marine Sciences Division, and a boat the students used in class was ripped away from the dock, lost forever. Or, so we all thought. Fast forward two years, a boat washes up on the shores of Crescent City, California and here is where the real miracle begins.
The Facebook page run by the city of Rikuzentakata (www.facebook.com/RikuzentakataCity) received a message and a series of photos. “Is this boat something that belongs to your high school?” I browsed the photos and saw the large hand-written letters, the magic marker ink fading in places. Takata High School. In Japanese. Was this our boat?
I called a high school teacher from the Marine Sciences Division and said, “I think I have something you’ll like. I’m sending you a photo.” He called five minutes later. “What is this? Where is it? Yeah. That’s our boat.”
A flurry of e-mails and telephone calls ensued between me, the Sheriff’s Office of Del Norte County, the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco, and NOAA. The boat was officially designated tsunami debris by both governments, but it remained sitting in the parking lot of the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office. What next?
“Our students are cleaning up the boat,” wrote Principal Coleen Parker of Del Norte High School in an e-mail to me. The boat was covered in barnacles resembling thick strands of spaghetti. Once hardened these creatures were impossible to remove but a group of students hacked away, revealing the white and blue underneath. I notified Takata High School again and began the process of returning the boat to Rikuzentakata.
Six months later the boat made its way back to our city, greeted with a bouquet of flowers and a group of students. Local newspapers sent crews of cameras and reporters to cover the story. “Let’s get these students connected,” I said to Principal Akihiko Yokota of Takata High School. “Let’s start an exchange program.”
More phone calls and e-mails crisscrossed the Pacific. In February 2014, students from Del Norte High School arrived in Rikuzentakata and met with Takata High School students. How could we continue this exchange and keep the story of the miracle relevant? Here was an incredible opportunity for a long-term relationship, for a more formal sister-school program to emerge.
With funding provided to cover travel expenses, fourteen students and three teachers from Takata High School visited Del Norte High School in early January this year. The students stayed with local families while attending school during the week. They visited local Native American tribes. They saw where the boat landed. They visited Redwood National Forest. They ate pizza, clam chowder, and cheeseburgers (ordering for themselves in English). Facebook and Twitter messages flew onto cell phones all week as students added friends and friends-of-friends. Takata High School students who didn’t make the trip were brought into the circle of friendships being established in northern California as Takata High School students introduced their new American families to people back home. Good-byes were said through hugs and tears.
It all started with a boat. Now two schools and the communities surrounding these young people have connected allowing for friendship. Students connected across the Pacific. Programs were initiated. A disaster turned a tragedy into a story of hope. Here is a present no one hoped to receive—a lost boat coming home, carrying the bonds of friendship forever.