And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown is a focused and compassionate telling about the last few years in the lives of many of the teenagers from the San Francisco Peoples Temple church who went to Guyana. Jonestown, the utopian village touted by Reverend Jim Jones, thrived on the skills, energy and labor of these teens, who had formerly attended Opportunity II High School, a small public alternative school, during their years in San Francisco. At Opportunity, the Peoples Temple “kids” appeared to be typical teenagers, though more quiet and serious than many of their fellow students. Several Temple students began leaving Opportunity during the 1976-77 academic year, and over the following summer, most of the remaining Temple youngsters disappeared, apparently sent to Jonestown as well. Their teachers – including Judy Bebelaar and Ron Cabral, the authors of this book – were worried about their students in the remote settlement. When the report of the mass murder-suicides hit the news in mid-November 1978, it came as a great shock to their former teachers and fellow students.
Opportunity High was an innovative alternative high school founded by idealistic teachers in the late 1960s. The student population consisted partly of kids who had been sent to Opportunity to prevent their dropping out and to give them a chance to work toward graduating, and partly of those who chose the school because of its more liberal, project-oriented curriculum and greater interaction with their teacher/counselors. Because of this curriculum, in 1975, Reverend Jim Jones chose Opportunity as the school for Temple teenagers to attend, but Marcia Perlstein, the head teacher at that time, refused to accept all the students in a bloc. However, in 1976, the newly-appointed principal, Yvonne Golden, told Jones she’d take all the high school-aged young people from the church. At first, teachers were upset that their protocol of interviewing each student was not followed, but soon came to admire these responsible, likable teens.
And Then They Were Gone tells how two very different teenage populations met at Opportunity. The Temple kids took classes in Creative Writing, Native American Studies, Sociology and other classes with the “old” kids, and made it possible to form the first Opportunity baseball team. In many ways, the Peoples Temple kids were model students. Truly, they were just normal teenagers whose parents and guardians were members of the Reverend Jones’ integrated church.
The second half of And Then They Were Gone focuses on the migration of the Peoples Temple teenagers to Jonestown and what life was like there for the young people. In many ways, Jonestown was built by the young, whose strength and resilience were turned toward clearing land, tilling the field, tending crops, caring for younger children, building facilities, and serving as security guards and Jones’ personal protective service. Even as conditions went from bad to horrific, these young people still found ways to be kids, found ways to escape, physically and mentally, the prison that Jonestown became. Most important, many found ways to rebel, sometimes seemingly trivial ways and sometimes significant. The book concludes with Jonestown’s final days.
Judy Bebelaar was a founding teacher of Opportunity. She taught English classes, Native American studies, and Creative Writing, a class where she interacted daily with the kids from Peoples Temple; she also co-taught a cooking class. Each teacher at Opportunity served as a counselor for 15 students, and Stephan Jones was one of hers.
Ron Cabral taught journalism, ran a radio program with the students, and created and coached the school’s baseball team, which included several Temple teenagers during the 1977 season. Many of those players joined Jonestown’s basketball team, including the Jones boys – Stephan, Jim Jr. and Tim.
Cabral was inspired to create this book after viewing The People’s Temple, a play written by Leigh Fondakowski, and invited Bebelaar to join him in the project. The two did extensive research, reading books and articles on the topic, interviewing fellow teachers and former students, exploring the Peoples Temple material at the California Historical Society, and learning much from the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple website. Bebelaar became lead writer, and Cabral compiled the photographs and maps for the book. The book changed many times over the years as they gained more knowledge of the Temple and the young people in it.
And Then They Were Gone covers the time period from the late 1960s through the 1970s. The book provides the social context for understanding Opportunity High, Peoples Temple, and Jonestown as part of a complex decade of turbulent cultural change. Appendices include narratives about many of the students and individuals involved at Opportunity and at Peoples Temple, a chronology of events, and a report on those who are part of the story nearly forty years later.
The book, which will contain numerous photographs, will be released in early 2017.
(Jannie Dresser is the editor and publisher at Sugartown Publishing in Albany, California. She can be reached at email@example.com.)