As a teacher of sociology and social studies the story of the Jonestown tragedy has always been one I have found to be one of utmost importance. Teaching group behavior and group theory? Discuss the events of Jonestown. Teaching the impact of the Cold War on common people? Discuss the events of Jonestown. Teaching how societies are formed and how they can fall apart? Jonestown again. Wanting students to understand racial divide issues in American History? Look into the history of the Peoples Temple. Trying to find a way to teach the role of religion in social settings? Look to Jonestown. It has always been one of those lessons that invigorates and pushes me to push my students to think deeper, dig further, and really try to understand. I loved the topic for what it did for me, and what it did for my students in terms of their education. I had always felt a connection to it, a longing to understand more and more. Some call it the “vortex” of Jonestown; the more you get answers to your questions the more you gain new questions that seem unanswerable. I went out to answer one, and that question was simply, “why me?”
As a lifelong learner and at the same time educator, when a topic really engages me, I proceed to go all out to make it an experience for not only myself, but more importantly my students. I had taught the lesson of Jonestown in my classes in many different ways, and since the topic was always important to me, I wanted more. I began a two year research project that was for no particular reason other than I knew I needed to. Call it a spiritual quest, call it a wanna-be professor’s practice for future research, or call it just simply a quest for knowledge because I wanted to be a better teacher for my students. My research led me to many places and to many items about Jonestown. Many of the items that I thought I had “found” had been out there for years, but to me, it was all a goldmine of research and answers.
During this time of research and study, I came into contact with Tim Carter, a survivor of the tragedy who saw everything up close and in person. I remember when it was finally arranged how and when our cross continental conversation would take place, my mind was that of a researcher. I had my yellow pad ready to go with a list of questions that I was going to somehow, someway ask Tim. The time came for the conversation, and it went well. I was so thankful for Tim’s gracious way of answering even my tougher questions. I could sense that he was cautious, and there is no reason to blame him. The years since the tragedy have led to many people taking advantage of his time I’m sure purely for reasons that I wouldn’t consider fair. The documentaries on the tragedy hardly ever get it right, and the Kool-Aid jokes continue to permeate our society to a generation now that has no clue where that horrible term came from. Why would Tim think I was any different? Who am I to do this? I continued my various forms of research when I had the time and put the interview with Tim in a file.
The more I researched, the more the conversation with Tim kept creeping up in my mind. And looking back at my yellow pad, I don’t know how much different I really was than the average Joe reporter. However as I looked more carefully on that yellow pad I circled and highlighted two items: “Siddhartha” and “candy cane”. Yes, I had notes on Jim Jones and his wild behaviors, and notes on the horrible final night. But those were just notes. The words I highlighted without meaning to or knowing why, had really nothing to do with Jonestown. But the reason I highlighted them was important. Siddhartha is a novel by Herman Hesse, one I always have my students read, one that talks of a journey, both spiritual and earthly. It was in my notes because Tim had mentioned he had read it around the time of the Vietnam War in which he served. Wow. An interesting read and an interesting connection that had nothing to do with Jim Jones. Then there was “candy cane”. This was circled because Tim told of a story of a young homeless child, who Tim through a charity organization helped deliver candy canes to during the holidays and the child couldn’t eat it, as his teeth couldn’t handle the sugar for they were so destroyed from decay. I couldn’t fathom that, a child unable to take the gift because of the pain. It also showed to me what Tim was looking for in Peoples Temple – he wanted to help people. This touched me and stuck with me as I always am looking for ways to help those in need, and once again, had nothing to do with November 18th or cyanide.
I continued to talk to Tim via email or on the phone about Jonestown, but the more that happened the more the conversation went away from that topic, and more to the here and now, and our lives. I learned more about his interest in sports, and how we are both die-hard fans of our respective teams. I learned that after his return to the States post-Guyana he became a sports card collector, something I was beginning to enjoy again with my own three sons who were falling in love with the hobby. I learned something that no documentary or no reading could teach me, I learned what it was like to make a new friend.
Then something happened. Tim announced to me that he was going to be flying into Pennsylvania to present to the Griot Institute at Bucknell University. Tim’s hometown was across the country, but Pennsylvania was one state away. Like pen pals that finally meet, I was able to get my chance to actually be with someone who now was becoming more like a long lost friend and that is how it felt when we met. We were able to eat lunch at the student center and laugh about the college life as we observed students, just two old friends having a good time. We talked a ton of sports, a ton about our families, and a little bit of Jonestown as well. Here we were, and to think it all started with a yellow pad of paper and a phone call.
The highlight of that trip came when Tim spoke to the audience of the Griot Institute that evening. The Institute is a wonderful program at Bucknell Institute that focuses on African Studies and is run by a wonderfully kind, sweet, and intelligent woman named Carmen Gillespie. She had come up with the idea to host various speakers who were either a part of Jonestown itself or have reflected on it in writing. So there I was in the front row of the audience hearing Tim gracefully speak on his life in Jonestown, realizing that I had driven five hours not to hear a speech, but to support a friend. It has to be almost impossible to speak and relive much of what Tim spoke of that night, and perhaps me being there comforted him to some extent. I was very proud of him that night, and thankful that the Griot Institute made it possible for us to finally connect in person.
I had to drive back that evening, leaving Bucknell around 10:00 p.m. knowing I wouldn’t be home until well after midnight. I had to teach the next day so I had no other choice. Then something came out of nowhere, something I’ve never experienced to this extent in my life, and I probably never will. I was stuck in a traffic jam where my car literally didn’t move but one foot for six hours. My arrival time should have been 3:00 a.m., instead it was 9:00. As I think back on that traffic jam, I remember feeling a sense that there was so much more to talk to Tim about, or so much more to know about him. The traffic jam was a way for me to reflect and be thankful for my passion for learning and teaching, my desire to help students see and understand the events of life, and also to reflect on the opportunity I had in meeting a lifelong friend for the first time. An answer for my question was coming closer.
Since then I have bought some of Tim’s card collection from him that I slowly give to my three sons as surprises. Whenever I pull them out to give them a few of the hundreds at a time, they always know that I got the cards from my good friend Tim who lives way out West. Someday I will tell them the story of not only how I got to know Tim but also all about Tim’s life in Peoples Temple, a lesson that is important for my students to know, but even more important for me to teach my three sons. And that lesson cannot be found in the documentaries or the books or the movies. For this lesson is one of love, heart, family, and friendship. All things that were in Jonestown, and all things that were sadly lost for so many, including Tim. This was a man who lost all of that and more, and I’m so blessed and thankful that he is around today because in spite of all he lost, and all his hurt, he now continues to touch many lives, including mine and in a special way they will learn of later, my three sons.
So it is back to my original one question: why me? Why was Jonestown so much a part of my being? For one reason, to get it right when so many only portray it wrong, like many topics in education. For another, to show the humanity of all that was there, for there was so much good going on caught up in a web of bad. Like so many aspects of our media and our education, the negative overshadows much of the truth and the positive. But ultimately, when it comes down to it, why is Jonestown such a part of my being? Why do I care so much? Why do I want to get it right when I teach the topic? Simply put, it comes down to one reason: for a friend.
(Craig Foreman is a Sociology and History Teacher with the Expedition Academy at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio, as well as an adjunct Professor at Kent State University. He is in the beginning stages of pursuing his doctorate degree in education. He has made it a mission in his teaching career to help students understand the humanity of history and not just the factual information that is typically presented in textbooks.
(Craig Foreman is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His earlier articles appear here. The school’s website is www.expeditionacademy.com. He may be reached at Ke_cforeman@kentschools.net.)