On “Getting It Right”

(Craig Foreman is a Sociology and History Teacher with the Expedition Academy at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio. The school’s website is www.expeditionacademy.com. His previous article in the Jonestown report is Jonestown and Education. He may be reached at Ke_cforeman@kentschools.net.)

It always is hard – maybe impossible – to get things right the first time out. No matter the task at hand, there always seems to be roadblocks and issues that get in the way. As a teacher that is simply almost always the case. But every so often, there is that rare moment when everything falls into place, when the stars align properly.

The spring of 2011 was one of those moments for me, when my class learned the lessons of Jonestown. By no means am I saying it was perfect or I was a perfect teacher – far from it – but true education took place during that month and the memories will last a lifetime. I know it will never be duplicated, at least not with this intensity or this passion.

I was fortunate enough to arrange a phone dialogue between my class and Tim Carter, a survivor of the Jonestown tragedy. I had spoken to him on a few occasions, and at the end of one of our lengthy conversations, he offered to speak to my students. I was so honored and thrilled that I knew I had to make it work – and it did. After many talks with Tim on the phone, someone I now consider a friend, but even a friend didn’t have to do what he did with my students that day.

You could have heard a pin drop. Forty-five students and two adults packed into a small classroom, huddled around a speaker phone waiting for the phone to ring. We allotted 90 minutes, but the intensity of the moment led it to last an hour longer. The focus of my ninth and tenth grade students on Tim’s words, and their engagement as he spoke, were unforgettable. They knew this was a special moment, they realized they were talking to someone with a ton of knowledge, they appreciated what they were witnessing and experiencing. Tim opened up to me and my students and left us not only wanting more, but also wanting to help.

That’s the key to the whole thing – my students wanted to help. But what could high school teens in Kent, Ohio do at this point in time? This event had happened so long ago, and so much had already been written and said about the events and the people – there really was nothing left to do. Or was there?

I always end my History class each year with a project for my students to create their own “textbook.” I believe that modern textbooks are biased and inaccurate, so I ask my students to avoid the “real” ones and make their own. Normally these textbooks center on an entire year of American or World History – covering a wide range of people, places, and events – in order to end myths and spread truths. This is always a daunting task that finds my students at many extremes.

This year was much more focused for this class, though. My students felt so touched and moved by Tim Carter’s words – and also by the knowledge that this event is so misconstrued in many social and educational settings – that they set out to make textbooks entirely on the Jonestown tragedy.

From Audrey, 16:

After receiving one of the most educational experiences one can receive, the textbook we would write about Jonestown, had to be perfect. It had to express Tim’s thoughts, our thoughts, and all the thoughts of the people that are just like you and me that didn’t get to live to tell their story today. It had to wrap up everything we learned perfectly because it needed to influence many others as it did to us. Talking to Tim Carter is an experience that I can and will never forget. A controversy with so many questions, but only a few people to get the truth from. Jonestown is an incident that the more you learn, the more questions you have, and this is exactly how human nature is. It is important for people to learn about Jonestown because it reveals the best and worst in humanity. Every time I sit down either to write or read about Jonestown, I come up with more why’s and what if’s. It is important to question and learn about such times because you learn valuable lessons. Power is one of the best feelings one can feel…though as we learn about our past we learn that it is one of the most dangerous things one can have…and again I come back to the question of why…?

During the three-week time period it took to prepare the textbook, my students were in contact with many of the people associated with the Temple who are still around today. They even were determined to use the beautiful artwork of former Temple member Patti Chastain Haag throughout the books, and by doing so they truly captured the heart and more importantly the soul of the people involved, not just the story. They reached out to activists who are pursuing bringing justice to the deceased, they sought out firsthand sources and people to truly illuminate their writings.

After weeks of hard work and editing, the textbooks were finalized and sent off “to the press.”

From Sarah, 16:

I remember after our interview and textbook work I ended up having a very pessimistic point of view on life and the purpose of living. I was so frustrated with the fact that all we do is ask questions about what happened, when it is never going to change anything. But now looking back, I realize that it will change things. Asking questions can change a lot, and curiosity should never be denied. Anybody can learn so much from this story—who wouldn’t be inspired by people who simply wanted to live in a utopia, giving equal rights and treating humans the way they deserve to be treated. They were just unfortunate enough to score a bad and secretly malicious leader. But to know that there is hope, that people really do want this harmony – that is the biggest hope of all.

As they always do when this textbook task is given in such a short period of time, the final pieces demonstrated two things. One, when trying to dispel myths which are so controlled by falsehoods in our society, it is impossible for anyone to be completely accurate, much less 45 teenagers. Two, the intense learning that took place went well beyond anything that could ever be duplicated.

Here we had groups of students with the hearts and minds to do justice to the people who were a part of the Jonestown tragedy as best as they possibly could. They had heard the words of Tim Carter firsthand, and they had seen all the videos, and done all the internet research they could. And as a teacher sitting back watching all of this take place, I was amazed at the compassion and work of my students. At the same time, I knew deep in my heart that our society would never completely allow us to “get it right.” The misinformation that pervades the Internet about Peoples Temple impacted the writings, taking them down paths at times that just weren’t true. Even many of the video clips – edited and controlled by the media – got many of the “facts” wrong. There just really was no way to get all the facts right in the way that my students and myself really wanted it to. But even though many of the facts we thought we had turned out to be false, there was still something special going on there, something that they could have never found on any of the video clips we watched, or on any of the sites they stumbled upon, but rather was only found in the words directly from Tim Carter. That something special was the truest of all human concepts, and that was love and the desire to help. Hearing someone speak –someone who had been there and experienced what the media got wrong – gave my students an inspiration to do the best their little freshman and sophomore minds and hearts could do with what our society has presented them.

From Alex, 16:

These were not crazy people, these were not suicidal freaks, these were people with the same feelings, same thoughts, same everything as me; and the sad thing is, in order to learn their story you had to do what they did; go searching for the answers yourself. I wholeheartedly believe that it is not the explanation of the events surrounding Jonestown that is the hump that we must overcome as a society, but it is the will to ask for the answer. Once you ask, there is nothing but an infinite stream of thought and response, and then we are right back at the beginning of Jonestown; a want for a better life, and a more in-depth understanding of ourselves and our world.

Tim Carter said something that many of my students always refer back to: “When someone tells you to look left, you better damn well also look right.” Many times it seems that lessons and textbooks are always looking one direction and not allowing students a chance to truly see what they might learn by looking the other way. Too many lessons today are buried on the pages of books and give no student or teacher a chance to relate or grasp the humanity of it all.

In the Spring of 2011, for one brief moment in time, when all was silent in room 506, I know for a fact that forty-five students, two teachers, and one gracious incredible man who spoke to us all “got it right,” and as a teacher I will never forget that.

(The conclusion of the textbook may be found here.)