Take a Picture of This

FullSizeRenderPictures tell a thousand words. The famous quote that has been repeated over and over, but what does it really mean? I never really thought about it until recently. During a trip home to visit my parents – one that doesn’t come often enough – my mother handed me a picture of my family from more than 30 years ago. It was a photograph of my family – my mother, father, my two sisters and me – on a beach vacation. The first thing I noticed was how young my parents were, and the realization that the age they were in the photo is roughly the age I am now. It was amazing to gaze on the youthful beauty of my mother, and the rugged handsome look of my Dad’s face with no wrinkles and not a hint of gray in the hair. Next I noticed myself, and how my wry smile as an eight-year-old matched exactly that of my seven-year-old son, something I never noticed before. Finally, I noticed my two sisters, both older than me, teenagers then. The funny hairstyles caught my eye, of course, but more importantly, their eyes reflected a happier time. Families go through many things, both good and bad, and unfortunately pride and life get in the way of keeping families as close as they could or should be.

Pictures deserve to be looked at more deeply, past the surface. Look into the eyes. Embrace the smiles and the youth or age. Embrace the soul of the picture, and remember. Pictures are a reflection of what once was, no matter the situation. As soon as a picture is taken, it becomes a reflection of the past and not always the future. Many times photos are the last reflection of better days. Many times that past is better, brighter, and not hurt by the weight of life’s obligations, trials and tribulations. Happy souls are right there, seen in the eyes and in the smiles.

pt beachKathryn Barbour, a former member of Peoples Temple, thought the same thing, as she set out to document the happy souls who lost their voices in Guyana in 1978, with her book entitled Who Died.

Being a close friend with a survivor of the tragedy gives me the feeling of a deep connection that goes beyond the “vortex” that many associate with an interest in Jonestown. As a high school teacher, I always want my students, even if they get nothing else from me in my classes, to understand not only what went wrong with Peoples Temple, but what was right and beautiful about the people there. So I always set out to do something different. At the end of the last school year, that friend – Tim Carter – mentioned that Kathy Barbour, whose first husband Dick Tropp died in Jonestown, lived near the school where I taught. Another powerful teaching moment! With Tim’s help, I immediately worked on bringing Kathy in to meet my students, share her experiences, and talk about her new book.

One of my students, Hanna, age 15, wrote about her contact with the writer:

On May 2nd 2015, a woman named Kathryn Barbour … introduced me to her book, Who Died. Kathy had been a member of Peoples Temple for years, and her first husband at the time, lived in Jonestown. She was very open to me, and we began to talk and connect on many things. Kathy spoke a lot about Who Died and informed me that, “It’s not a history book, but it a significant research tool and a powerful link to the people, through their own images.” At first I did not understand that statement. The book is a 1978 memorial album, of all the innocent lives lost in Jonestown. After more than fifteen back and forth emails with Kathy, and after Mr. Foreman found out from Tim Carter, we realized she had just moved not too far away from our school. Mr. Foreman pulled some strings, and she wound up in our history class, speaking to all of our classmates about her experiences.

Talking to Kathy was so incredibly eye opening, and I do not think I understand how powerful getting to talk to her was. The copy of her book that she gave me, gave a tangible representation of the events of Jonestown. Just flipping through the pages, you can see a sea of faces looking back at you. It was crazy to think that every single one of those people have a life story. They had unseen dreams, hopes, and fears. These pictures don’t just represent people, but they represent the individual lives, feelings, and emotions of Jonestown citizens. The thing that really hit me was being able to see the pain in Kathryn when she talked about these people. Kathryn could see the lives, dreams, hopes, and stories within these pictures, when to others it may have just been a face. It still hasn’t hit me that Kathy was there, and she lived it. Getting to interact with her was one of the most insightful things that I have ever been a part of. Learning like that, is learning like no other. The fact that I found her, and connected with someone like that, someone so involved in our country’s history, is so rewarding. It is definitely an experience I will never forget.

This book was all about pictures. Pictures of the people, men women and children, who died that tragic day in November of 1978. Here I was again faced with the notion that pictures can be a glimpse of a time of happiness and hope. The photos in Who Died, although yearbook and passport style in appearance, demonstrated glimpses into the eyes of people who had a common dream of peace and love, and pure happiness. One of my students, Bailey, aged 16 saw that, when she wrote:

In a letter a member of Jonestown wrote to her parents, she said,

“…I work hard. I’m the administrator of the medical system in Jonestown. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done… I am thousands of miles from you, the electronic communications are limited between us, but I am more your daughter than I’ve ever been before. -Phyllis”

When I read the letter above, I felt extremely connected to the woman who wrote it because of its similarities to how I feel towards my parents. The way that she felt so close to them although they were so far away because she knew how proud they would be of her. The same way as when I’m away from my parents, and doing something I know they would feel proud of, I feel most their daughter; representing who they raised me to be.

Jonestown has taught me more about myself and our history than I ever could have imagined. It has affected the way I view the world. The people of Jonestown are remembered for their end, and everything before that seems to be brushed aside. The start of Peoples Temple was the idea of a better world. Instead of just saying they wanted change, they went out and fought for what they believed in.

IMG_0577One of my biggest realizations of how little people understand of Jonestown was after we had the opportunity to talk to Kathy Barbour. We went to take a group picture towards the end of the period and as we were all starting to get up, I heard her say under her breath, “I’ve never felt so honored.” Kathy has survived a tragedy, losing almost everyone she has ever cared about and just our group wanting to take a picture made her feel more honored than ever before. I hope to be as passionate and determined as these people were and still are to this day. But also hope to be able to question authority and the people who we look up to. I will no longer go into my future without questioning why I think the way I do. I will no longer look at society and think, “That’s just the way it is” because it doesn’t have to be. I look forward to someday instilling in my kids what I have learned through Jonestown; if you want change, fight for it. The people of Jonestown deserve a better ending to their story, the one Jim Jones did not give them.

The profession called “teaching,” or that of education, is one that many times can be reciprocal. Sure, the teacher is at the head of the class, in the power position, and does the initial dissemination and instruction. However, it is the secondary learning that takes place when the students instruct back, many times without even knowing it. I am fortunate enough as a teacher to have experienced that many times in my life. The articles I have contributed reflect on that passion I have, to create learning environments for my students that are powerful and meaningful.

I think my students got that during those lessons with Kathy and her book. She spoke to us about what the workings of the Peoples Temple were like in California, and she spoke of the passion they had. She also allowed us to ask questions, answering even the tough ones. My students were motivated more than they had ever been for community service efforts. Ultimately, as that lesson concluded, I realized something that was taught to me from their questions and her answers, as well as the passion behind her book, and the passion behind the people of Peoples Temple.

I look back at the photo of my childhood family on the beach and fondly remember the times we had and the love we showed each other. As we all grew up, life happened as it does for many, and my family didn’t stay as close as I would have wanted or imagined when I was 8 years old in that picture. We have had some good times and memories since that photo for sure, but we also have had many extended moments when some in the family stop talking to others for various reasons, some legitimate, and some born of pride and jealousy. I know my family is not alone with these struggles, but my students and my lesson that day with Kathy Barbour taught me something after our class discussion. The people of Jonestown who dwell in her book had their dreams of happiness and family love taken away from them in the most horrible of ways. The photos show the love still alive in their eyes, and although they are not here today to find that love here on earth, their message holds strong. We need to all take advantage of our time here on earth, we need to love one another and not let petty things get in the way of that love. Those of us who know their story need to remember what they longed for, to remember what was taken away from them, and to remember that a picture always tells a story. When you have a chance to make it a good story in that picture, do all that you personally can to make it stay a good story.

This perhaps was the final real lesson of Peoples Temple and Jonestown I took from that day with Kathy and my students. I would be going against their legacy and not taking to heart what was in their souls if I didn’t do all I can for my family, far and wide. It’s the least I can do, because I still have that chance.

(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. Craig’s previous stories for this site may be found here. He may be reached at Ke_cforeman@kentschools.net.)