In December, Academy of the Canyons senior Sara Cole was the sole United States ambassador to participate in the Hawaiian Friendship Ceremony that marked 75 years of war and peace in the Pacific.
Cole, along with two ambassadors from Japan and one ambassador from Australia, came together for a week in Honolulu to visit historical sites, speak at local schools and attend the 76th anniversary ceremony of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“Looking back on it is like a dream,” Cole said. “It got me really close to research and learning from the past.”
The week-long experience was part of the “War and Peace in the Pacific 75 Years” educational program which encouraged schools from Australia, Japan and the U.S., including AOC, to create original documentaries about significant battles in the Pacific.
Cole, who helped lead AOC’s documentary project, decided to apply to become the program’s U.S. ambassador, because it made such an impact on her during the previous semester.
“After the project was completed, they had a second contest for students who had participated who might want to participate in the Friendship Ceremony,” said AOC teacher Jessica Ruiz who helped bring the project to the school. “They had to create a two-minute video on why the Friendship Ceremony is important and why it matters.”
Three months after applying, Cole found out she was chosen to become the Friendship Ceremony’s U.S. ambassador by the Australian National Maritime Museum staff. Cole immediately began working with her fellow ambassadors to discuss the project.
“It was really interesting because they all sort of had the same feelings about the project I did and they all were my age,” Cole said.
Visit to Honolulu
When they arrived in Honolulu, the group met together before visiting the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument with Hawaiian native Jimmy Lee, who witnessed the bombing at 11 years old.
“I’d been to the Pearl Harbor museum before, but we went with Jimmy and it was a completely different experience,” Cole said. “It made me realize that if we don’t pay attention to this stuff it’s not going to be here anymore. These people are not going to be here to listen to and if no one takes time to record history as personal experience, and not just as dates in a book, then it’s just going to be gone.”
The ambassadors then hosted assemblies in front of middle schoolers where they shared speeches about their experiences before traveling with them to the Pacific Aviation Museum.
The group also attended the Blackened Canteen ceremony and Youth Peace Symposium, and looked at the Douglas SBD Dauntless Planes, which were built in the Los Angeles area during the war.
Both Ruiz and Cole found it fascinating to speak to other students and teachers from around the world about their approach to teaching and learning about WWII.
“It was the coolest thing I’ve ever done as a teacher. I expected to just be a chaperone, but I feel like I got just as much out of the experience as Sara did, because I got a chance to see what education is like in other countries,” Ruiz said. “That was amazing to get a chance to talk with other teachers and see what their challenges are and what their experiences are and to see how different countries teach about WWII.”
The main aspect of the trip was the student’s participation in the Friendship Ceremony on the Surrender Deck of the USS Missouri.
In 1945, the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed on the battleship. This year, the ambassadors recognized the ceremony by giving their own speeches about peace and signing a friendship agreement in honor of their countries.
“The actual experience of doing the speaking was really cool because we spoke on the Missouri and gave our ceremony literally 10 feet away from where they have the original surrender documents under glass,” Cole said.
The experience brought Cole closer to not only her international peers, but also the history and artifacts themselves.
“If you’re talking about the intricacies of history, looking at those surrender documents the guy from Canada signed on the line for the Russian Federation, which means there’s two signatures on the Russian Federation line and nothing on Canada,” Cole said. “It’s these tiny little things that you’d never think of that humanize history so completely and, for me, that was what the whole thing was really about.”
The entire experience creating the original documentary and participating in the Friendship Ceremony brought Cole closer to her passion to study curation, the classics and history.
“I’m a history and classics major so that kind of stuff is facilitating stories using history, specifically facilitating empathy is what I’m really passionate about,” Cole said. “I feel like if we know the people who hurt each other in the past and did crazy things in the past, we can learn from it.”
The project also reaffirmed Cole’s desire to share history in a meaningful way that is accessible to everyone.
“I also sort of have a chip on my shoulder when people overemphasize academic language in historical writing because, if your history is not accessible, then it’s not worth your time,” Cole said. “If you can’t have an eighth grader read it and feel like they can be that person, it’s not worth it. So that’s sort of what I’m looking at doing now.”
For Ruiz, the experience completely altered the way she approaches teaching.
“I don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be for myself or for Sara, but I can definitely say that in my own life it’s going to be huge, where my perspective will never go back to being the same,” Ruiz said. “I know it’s going to have a lasting impact on how I approach teaching history, on the way I learn history and I think that’s a critical change as a result of teaching the project.”
On Twitter @_ChristinaCox_