Children of Peoples Temple, San Francisco to Jonestown
In 1976 I taught at a public alternative school in San Francisco, Opportunity High, the brainchild of a group of idealistic young teachers led by Marcia Perlstein. That year, Jim Jones sent all of the high-school age children from Peoples Temple to our small school. These 120 students changed the school and our lives forever, first by their arrival, then by their exodus. Within nine months, all of them were gone, most never to return.
Many who were alive when the news about the deaths in Jonestown reached the United States have forgotten, or have dismissed as mindless followers of a cult leader, the Peoples Temple members who went to Guyana. Many have simply never heard of Jonestown and what happened there on November 18, 1978.
Of the 918 people who died, five—Congressman Leo Ryan, NBC correspondent Don Harris, NBC soundman Bob Brown, newspaper photographer Greg Robinson and Temple defector Patty Parks—were shot to death at the Port Kaituma airstrip. Sharon Amos and her three young children died at the Peoples Temple house in Lamaha Gardens in Georgetown. The remaining 909 died in Jonestown. (These deaths are documented at www.jonestown.sdsu.edu.)
Some of those who died, and the few who lived, can add to the efforts of many to make Jonestown more than a barely remembered story of people who perished in a faraway jungle, and an ugly new phrase added to colloquial language: “to drink the Kool-Aid.” Perhaps these young people, their hopes, their poetry, their efforts to help make a better world, can help bring the human part of the story to light.
With that in mind, fellow teacher Ron Cabral and I have written a book of creative nonfiction called And Then They Were Gone: Children of Peoples Temple, San Francisco to Jonestown. Leigh Fondadowski’s moving play, The People’s Temple, performed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2006, inspired our work. The book’s dialogue is an amalgam of memory, research and imagination. Most of the events are true, though sometimes we have changed the time sequence to accommodate the story. All of the poems included here were written by our students.
We hope our story helps others come to know the students as Ron and I did and that their story will help people remember Jonestown in a new way.
Adapted excerpt from And Then They Were Gone, by Judy Bebelaar and Ron Cabral.
Opportunity High was located on South Van Ness in 1976. Each of the classrooms, former offices, was now fitted with chalkboards, the student desks found in every San Francisco school, and a battered teacher’s desk. My room was upstairs, looking out over grimy Plum Alley. A Dream Catcher hung from the ceiling. A willow basket, obviously woven by a novice, held a schefflera. An assortment of novels and poetry books filled three cases: Roots, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Black Elk Speaks, Leaves of Grass, Cool World. Posters covered the walls: John Lennon, Bruce Lee, Kuan Yin, Paul Robeson, Jimi Hendrix.
Today, Teddy McMurray, my newest counselee from Peoples Temple, was joining my 9 a.m. poetry class.
“Hi, guys. Sorry to be late,” I said, ushering Teddy through the door and shutting my purse in the bottom desk drawer. I’d learned to leave my wallet in the car. “This is Teddy. He’s checking out some classes. So why don’t all of you introduce yourselves? Say your name, and the color that’s the best metaphor for you today. And something, if you like, about yourself or Opportunity. Teddy, you can sit in this desk.”
I wasn’t surprised that Raymond spoke first. His shirt was freshly ironed, his brown eyes smiling.
“Hi, I’m Raymond Berrios. Today I’m kind of blue, not sad blue, but like today, a nice sunny blue. Teddy, most teachers here are pretty cool, except of course, Ms. B. She’s awful mean, as you’ve probably already discovered.” Raymond shot me a smile. He was one of the sweetest kids in the school. Though now, with the arrival of the Temple students, he had some competition.
Teddy said hello in a quiet voice. He didn’t look up at the class, but gave Raymond a small grin.
“And I’m Ron Menefee. Pleased to meet you, man. I’m ebony, like the piano keys.”
A long-haired boy with blue-green eyes stood. “Carl. I’m gray, like clouds, ‘heavy drapes hinting the cleanness above.’ That’s a quote from my last poem in our class magazine.”
A slender, dark-skinned boy stood next. “You know me already, Teddy, so I’ll just say I’m a grain of sand. But every grain counts, right? And that’s my poem on the wall.”
Manny, a philosopher poet, seemed to know all of the Temple kids, although he had come in much earlier than they. He’d been in some trouble at another school, and wound up at Opportunity.
“Definitely wasn’t his fault,” John, the head counselor, had explained. “Bum deal for a nice kid. Defending himself from a bunch of bullies—trying to climb through a hole in the fence to get to school on time, and blam!” Everyone liked Manny, who had an athlete’s carriage, an easygoing manner.
“Why don’t you read it, Manny?”
“Sure. I wrote this after Ms. B brought in Earth, Wind and Fire and played a cut for us. I borrowed a line. She said it’s OK as long as you use quotes.”
…The nations built today
Are built on guilt of yesterday
The world goes by the master plan
Some say ‘keep your head to the sky’
It might just tell you why
Can we just understand
We are but grains of sand
In lost time?
Joyce, a Temple kid, rose and pointed to the poem on parchment above the blackboard, “O Western Wind, When Wilt Thou Blow.”
“It’s my favorite poem.” Joyce was a beautiful girl, slender, with even features and big, soft eyes that held a quiet, confident intelligence. I admired her flair. Today she wore a red blouse, a small black silk scarf, and a black skirt.
“Ms. B, can I read my poem?”
“Sure—any of you can. Just grab a copy of the magazine.”
“Well then, I’m the Trade Wind:
O’ trade wind, when the kind breeze blows,
As the rain tingles on the roof of the tropic island
Birds fly to their nests in the trees,
Little creatures hiding from the storm.
“And this one’s mine too:
How do you get from
the ghetto to the sparrow?
In the corner of a ghetto
a sparrow grows lips, and
remembers how to sing.
As students clapped, John opened the door. “Hi Judy, kids. Meet Mondo Griffith, Willie Thomas, here to check out your class.”
“Welcome, Mondo and Willie. You know, guys, the rest of you just better introduce yourselves, or we won’t have time for the lesson.”
The two new students, also from the Temple, nodded hello as introductions continued.
“We’re going to read two poems now, one by Genny Lim, who lives here in San Francisco. Her book Island translates poems found on Angel Island, written by Chinese immigrants in the 1800s.
“Poems are meant to be heard, not just read silently. If a poem is good, you want to hear some of the lines again, to notice images, hear how sounds can make meaning stronger. So we’ll read Genny’s poem together. How many of you know what it’s like in a Quaker church?”
Carl said, “There’s no minister. People just stand up and start talking.”
“Right, when the spirit moves them. Now, as I read ‘Yellow Woman,’ each of you will pick two or three lines you like and mark them so you can read them later. Then, when I get to the last lines, ‘Blood of Asia,/Flesh of the New World/our cross,’ that’s when your part comes in. When the spirit moves you, when you think it fits in some way, just like in a Quaker church, read one of your lines, or even just a few words, with feeling. You can read lines in any order, and repeat lines too.”
“Try to make it sound powerful. We’ll invite Genny to class to read some of her other poems. Maybe we’ll perform this for her.”
Willie smiled in pleasure at the thought.
“Anyone know what a sweat shop is?”
Manny raised his hand. “You can find them in alleys. Bunches of people bent over sewing machines, working like crazy for nothing.”
“Right, Manny, and that’s the setting for the poem. OK. Ready?”
I am the daughter of
seafarers, gold miners, quartz miners
railroad workers, farmworkers
garment workers, factory workers
restaurant workers, laundrymen
houseboys, maids, scholars,
rebels, gamblers, poets, paper sons….
When she finished the poem, Carl began the kids’ part of the Quaker reading with the line about the needle, “a sliver flew into his eye.”
“Drowned his startled cry,” added Raymond. The others began to chime in, everyone repeating one or two of the lines, until I gave the signal for the end.
“Great! I wish we had time to hear it again, but we’ve got to read the other poem, too, and write.” I passed out the second poem, Joyce Carol Thomas’ “Paint Me Like I Am,” and explained that they could choose either poem as a model.
“Now we’ll write. You can start each line with the same first words the poet did, or you can break from the pattern. If there’s something in your head that wants to be written, do. But write with feeling; use specific language, images, songs—like the needle in the eye, passion fruit, ‘Amazing Grace.’ There’s only one strict rule. No talking during writing time, which is”—I glanced at the clock—“12 minutes. If you don’t have paper, use the back of a poem. OK?”
Heads bent and soon the room was quiet except for the scratching of pencils.
Exactly 12 minutes later, Mondo raised his hand.
“You said to write with feeling, so I wrote about feeling. If that’s OK, can I read it?”
“Sure, Mondo.” I was astonished. His first day in a new class, and he was ready to share?
“OK. Here goes nothing.”
…I can feel the tree right beside me.
I can feel my hand on my face.
Is this the feeling you are talking about?
Or is it the feeling that we have within?
Feeling for people like my mom or dad or sister?
Do you mean feeling for all people?
I get the point—starving people.
Not just one race, but all of them.
Now I got the feeling.
The feeling is love.
There was a minute of silence. Claudia looked a little misty-eyed. Manny started to clap, softly, and the class joined in. “Man, you’ve got the touch, Mondo!” Carl said.
Mondo smiled and said, “I’ve got another, too, here in my pocket.”
“Please read it.”
…the dark is like no sound around
once in a while
I look up and down and all around
to make sure I am by myself
I do not like anybody to see
me talk to myself
because I might say
the wrong thing.
I smiled at the tongue-in-cheek silliness in the last lines. But there was something poignant there, too. Had someone given the Temple kids rules about what they could and could not share with us? But they all seemed so happy. Couldn’t be.
Joyce raised her hand. “Here’s mine. I used ‘Paint Me’ as a model.”
…Paint me with my head up looking proud
Paint me with a big happy smile on my face.
Paint me with beautiful colored beads,
With my hair corn-rolled in an African style.
Paint me with the animals of the jungle,
Like a colorful bird and a brown soft
Monkey jumping tree to tree.
Paint me with all the nationalities of people.
Paint me with a gorgeous colored dress…
Paint me beautiful.
I didn’t know then that Joyce was probably describing her romantic ideas of life in Guyana, as Jim Jones had already begun to sell it as a jungle paradise to his flock. Joyce believed she would have time for plaiting cornrows and putting beads in her hair, for watching animals, for boyfriends and laughter.
Willie raised her hand. The Temple newcomers were making their presence felt.
“This isn’t on topic exactly, Ms. B. It’s sort of opposite to ‘Paint Me,’ and it’s kinda like Genny’s.”
Young, old, poor and black
Shot, burned, killed, beaten,
For what reason?
Our dark skin?
They’re laying down a little black child…
Who killed that little boy?
Somebody tell me
Who killed him?
“That’s powerful, Willie. I hope you’ll be in this class too.
Willie smiled, “Yes, I’d like to.”
Judy Bebelaar is recently retired from teaching high school after 37 years in the San Francisco Unified School District and now writes full-time. Her articles about teaching have been published in books and newspapers, and her poetry in many magazines and anthologies. She is host of a reading series, the Bay Area Writing Project’s “Writing Teachers Write” at the Nomad Cafe. Fellow writer Ron Cabral is the author of Country Joe and Me.