That Championship Season Before the World Turned Gray

And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown, by Judy Bebelaar and Ron Cabral (Albany, CA: Sugartown Publishing, forthcoming Fall 2017)

While reading about Jonestown, there are times I simply cannot read anything else. I have to either take a break, read something funny, take a deep breath, then continue reading. Partly because of so many missed opportunities by people in authority to stop the carnage of November 18, 1978; partly because when I learn about the members of Peoples Temple, I realize that they really wanted to change the world; and finally for the simple fact that more than three hundred children and teenagers were killed that day.

And Then They were Gone written by Judy Bebelaar and Rob Cabral made me incredibly sad and incredibly angry for all the above reasons. However, it is a story that still needs to be told.

In 1976, Bebelaar and Cabral were teaching at Opportunity II, a continuation high school in San Francisco. The school was made for high school students that – for whatever reason – couldn’t go to regular high school. Bebelaar taught Creative Writing, Cabral was trying to get a baseball team started. That fall something unusual happened. A well-dressed man with slicked black hair and wore dark sunglasses came to visit Principal Yvonne Golden. He wanted the teenagers in his church to come to this high school, in large part because of her leadership of it. She welcomed the new students with open arms. The man was of course, Jim Jones.

Thankfully Bebelaar and Cabral do not put Jones as the center of their narrative, but rather as a shadow of what is to come. Instead they are smart and focus on the teenagers themselves: Mondo Griffith, a sixteen year old who shared his poetry the first day of class. Dorothy Buckley, who also took Bebelaar’s creative writing class, and was featured on the school’s radio show where she played songs from He’s Able; and Wesley Breidenbach, who was well liked by his teachers for his intelligence and his ability to draw others into class conversations. And then there’s Stephan Jones. Described by the authors as quiet and shy, he has a world weariness that didn’t seem right on a seventeen-year-old boy. Little did they know the weight Stephan was carrying, dealing with family and church pressures.

A big focus is on the Cobras, the successful baseball team Cabral formed. The team was coming together as a cohesive unit, but then several Temple members told Coach Cabral that they were leaving school. Suddenly, Cabral was left without a team. Bebelaar saw the students leave her class as well, and she expressed concern about Stephan, since he was supposed to graduate. They had been told the students were going to some type of mission in South America. By the end of summer 1977, they were fearing for their former students’ lives.

And Then They Were Gone is part Up the Down Staircase, part Raven. Bebelaar and Cabral write well how the Temple teenagers become a part of Opportunity High, along with how the school flourished when teachers and students were working together. Examples of the students’ poetry are heartbreaking: many showed promise as writers, yet they never had the chance to let the talent develop. The authors also write well about what is about to come. In one scene, a non-Temple teenager asks Jim Jones to take off his sunglasses, and is eventually disciplined for asking such a question. Anyone remotely familiar with Peoples Temple and Jonestown knows that asking Jim Jones to do anything unexpected is pointing out the emperor has no clothes. It was at times putting your life in your hands.

What is maddening about the story is learning how many times warnings were given to so many people and agencies about what was going on in the Temple, yet either nothing or little was done. I don’t put Bebelaar or Cabral in the above category nor fault them for what happened; they truly had no idea how the Temple teenagers were being treated. Yet there were politicians, school authorities and reporters who knew something was off. They didn’t say anything or chose to stay in denial.

In one heartbreaking scene set in November 1978, several Concerned Relatives go to see the American ambassador for help, only to end up in a screaming match. If the ambassador had listened to the relatives rather than fought with them, over nine hundred lives could’ve been spared.

Yet the authors should be commended for their nonjudgmental attitude throughout the book. Perhaps they know that after forty years, pointing fingers and blaming wouldn’t bring anyone back, including their students.

Bebelaar and Cabral end the book on a bittersweet note. They write about the students who died, but they also give updates on those who survived. One of them was Linda Mertle, whose father and stepmother famously defected years before. Maya Angelou once visited a class Linda was attending (not Opportunity II), observed Linda, then said, “Whatever you’re into right now, it’s not good for you. You have to get out of it.”

If only others had heard Angelou’s words. Maybe they could’ve had another championship season. The Creative Writing students could’ve continued writing and improved. Instead, as Herb Caen wrote after the tragedy, the world turned gray. We are poorer because they left too soon, taking their talents with them, leaving nothing behind, not even dust.

(Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons is an MFA Writing and Publishing candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her previous articles are here.)