Book inspires student to make paper crane promise
Thomas Burleson didn’t want to let Tricia Creasey down.
Inspired by the book "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes," Thomas, an eighth grader at Brown Middle School born without fingers on his right hand, set out on a quest he hoped would save his dying teacher's life.
According to Japanese legend, a person who makes 1,000 origami cranes will be cured of any disease. After reading the story in 2011 and knowing Creasey, a science teacher at BMS, suffered from colon cancer, Thomas got some origami books from the library and quickly learned the art of making paper cranes.
"I thought maybe it would cure Mrs. Creasey," Thomas said. "My grandma had cancer and she already had passed away and I thought I wasn't going to let someone else pass away."
In a very short time, Thomas, 13, mastered the technique and managed to craft more than 300 paper cranes. He focused on helping his favorite teacher with whom he shared an innate belief to never give up or let any obstacle stand in their way.
"It's not that hard once you get used to it," said Thomas. "There's no telling how I made all these things. I don't even know."
Thomas ultimately would witness a fate similar to Sadako, who never reached 1,000 paper cranes. Creasey died on Feb. 9, 2012, ending her six-year battle with cancer. Her death rippled through Brown Middle School like a tsunami, leaving faculty and students in a sea of sadness.
"I was heart broken," said Thomas. "It affected everybody."
Refusing to let his promise go unfilled, Thomas pressed on with a heavy heart, making paper cranes whenever and wherever he could. Thomas often skipped lunch or found time at the end of class to slowly plug away at his 1,000-crane commitment. Before long, family and friends joined in. Now a seasoned professional, Thomas passed on his skills to others, who often found the skill challenging despite having the use of all 10 fingers.
In the months following Creasey's death, Thomas could be seen carrying his cranes around in an old suitcase given to him by Mary Hunter, a digital learning teacher at BMS who supplied paper and scissors to the origami crane endeavor.
Hunter marveled at the determination of Thomas.
"After [Creasey] died, he would not stop," Hunter said. "When they made the announcement that she had died, Thomas and the kids were all breaking down crying but he would not stop making those cranes. The Bible says a little child will lead them. The kids were so inspired.
"[The suitcase] was broken but his grandpa fixed it. He had so much to carry and he only had that one hand. He was going to make those cranes regardless. He was unrelenting."
Word of Thomas’ crane promise continued to spread, leading to more people who wanted to get involved. Katherine Cranford knew Creasey well, as the two had daughters in the same grade. Cranford lost her mother to cancer and shared in the grief of Creasey's death.
With Relay for Life, a cancer benefit Creasey strongly supported, approaching, Cranford came up with an idea that would both honor her friend's life and expand on Thomas’ labor of love. Cranford's family cut, carved, painted and decorated a large wooden ribbon used to symbolize Relay for Life and its efforts toward fighting cancer. Once completed, they decorated the ribbon with Thomas’ cranes, now totaling more than 700 and in all different sizes, and donated it to the Creasey family on May 17. Tricia's husband, William, said the ribbon and all the work reminded him of the impact his wife had, and continues to have, on the lives of others.
“[Thomas] is able to do things a lot of other people aren’t able to do,” said William Creasey. “He’s a remarkable young student and my wife spoke highly of him. She showed students that just because you have something medically or physically going on, you never let anything stand in your way and always make the best out of a situation.”
Thomas’ job is not done.
With 70 percent of his promise complete, Thomas pledges to finish what he started nearly two years ago. For the young man who wants to be a youth pastor and who said he taught himself how to write with his right hand by duct taping a pen to it, anything short of 1,000 paper cranes is unacceptable.
"I told Mrs. Creasey I was going to make them and I'm going to finish," Thomas said. "She's one of the best teachers ever. She was very loving and a person who needed a lot of love and passion."
Just as Creasey refused to let cancer keep her from teaching, Thomas, who swings from monkey bars with his feet and admits baseball isn't his game, has not allowed a shortage of fingers to quench his over-abundance of love and compassion for others.
He is thankful of his time spent with Tricia Creasey, a woman whose zest for life still radiates in the hearts of those who knew her. Burleson may not have saved his teacher's life but in no way did he let her down.
He carries a small part of Tricia Creasey with him every day, and with every paper crane he shares that common piece of goodness she shared with the world. While he may not yet fully understand how or why he made all those paper cranes, Thomas’ promise no longer hedges on a specific number.
He never let her down, and the story of Thomas Burleson and his journey toward 1,000 paper cranes continues.
Staff Writer Eliot Duke can be reached at 888-3578, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Follow how Thomas makes the paper cranes on the Thomasville Times Facebook page.