Roses in Memoriam – The students of Opportunity High

by Judy Bebelaar

I taught the young people of Peoples Temple at Opportunity High in 1976 and 1977. Since 2006 I have been working with another teacher, Ron Cabral, on a book, And Then They Were Gone: Children of Peoples Temple from San Francisco to Jonestown, about the young people from Peoples Temple who came to Opportunity High. Through this work, I have come to know those students better now than I did 35 years ago, as Ron and I have discovered stories – or have been fortunate to have people share stories with us – that we didn’t know then, as well as some photographs which tell stories too.

Sometimes the simplest things are the most powerful, like names written on stone. With the memorial, we finally have a place to go to look for a name, pause and remember. And that is exactly what I did on the day of the Memorial Day ceremony. I had planned to attend the dedication ceremony, but as it turned out, I was unable to make it. I did however go to the cemetery later in the day, after the ceremony was over.

The cemetery was quiet when I arrived. I had brought some red roses, so I opened the bundle and began to look for my students’ names on the stones. Walking around the group of newly-laid marble panels on the hillside at Evergreen Cemetery, I paused whenever I found a familiar name and bent to place a flower there.

A rose for Mark Sly, who didn’t want to go to Guyana. His art teacher, Anna Wong, encouraged him to apply to a college with a good art program because of his finely detailed, Escher-like drawings. One of the rewards of embarking on the book project is that I was able to tell Mark’s mother Neva that – yes – Mark did have at least one girlfriend before he died, something she’d often wondered about, and that Michelle, who was not in the Temple, was another smart, sensitive, artistic young person who thought Mark’s smile, “though rare, was beautiful.” I was happy I had been able to give Neva and Michelle the chance to talk to one another.

A rose for sweet Joyce Polk Brown, whose poem about a beautiful tropical place and “little creatures hiding from the rain,” along with her lovely face come to mind whenever I think of her. Teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but being human, we do. She’d still be writing and dancing, I’m sure, if she’d been one of the lucky ones who survived, though I know it hasn’t been an easy road for them. I wondered, like Mark’s mother, if she’d had a boyfriend in Jonestown. It’s hard to imagine she wouldn’t have had many suitors, though her biographical box has no entry for a husband or partner, nor have I found any reference to anyone in the journals of Edith Roller, who was her teacher in Jonestown.

And a rose for Dorothy Buckley, the idealist, the determined dreamer. Dorothy was a poet too, and Opportunity’s equivalent of student body president. Her mother and sister had been with the Temple for a long time. Though Jones singled out Dorothy for special attention among the Jonestown children, she died with the rest. In a previous version of the book I imagined her day-dreaming about “jumping over the broom” in a West African marriage tradition, and talking about her plans for college.

And one for Mondo, Amondo Griffith, a sweet and handsome boy, one of the poet-baseball players at Opportunity.

And one for Ricky Johnson, another romantic soul. Jones chastised him in Guyana for letting his heart be broken and trying to kill himself. Maybe Ricky’s swallowing the gasoline was his desperate way of attempting to escape.

And one for Wesley Breidenbach, smart and serious, who angered at injustice on the baseball diamond and in the world. He would have loved college too, majoring, I’d guess, in Political Science, maybe Philosophy. In Raven, Tim Reiterman tells of how he managed to break through Wesley’s grim soldierly mask, as they rode together in the back of the truck to the airstrip in Port Kaituma that last day by commenting on Guyana’s beauty. Wesley became, for a moment, the teenager who loved the jungle and the idea of building an exemplary society there.

And a rose for Ollie Smith, whom I know found love, and for her husband Eugene and their baby boy, and one for Teddy McMurry and his wife and child, and roses for Candace and Cindy Cordell, for Willie Thomas and Rory Bargeman and Sonje Duncan and Lisa Lewis and Marilee Bogue and so many more.

At the gathering after the ceremony, I had a chance to talk with a man who had known Teddy McMurry and his brother well, and obviously cared for them. I talked with Linda Mertle again, and Johnny Cobb and Stephan Jones. There was a good feeling in the garden where people gathered in small groups to talk, a sense of something meaningful accomplished, of connections being made. I certainly appreciate the one I made with the woman who had known Joyce Polk in Jonestown, who told me that yes, Joyce had been one of the dancers and that, after pausing a moment to reflect, yes, “Joyce was okay.” In response to my question about a boyfriend, the woman said, “Everyone had someone.” That was good to hear.

(Judy Bebelaar was a creative writing teacher at Opportunity High in San Francisco, which a number of young people from Peoples Temple attended. She and Ron Cabral are writing a book which about the children of Peoples Temple whom they knew. She may be reached at judy@judybebelaar.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on August 22nd, 2014.
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