Interview by Susan Allison
WNBA Featured author, Judy Bebelaar, has been writing for seventy-two years. Yes, that’s right, seventy-two years! She remembers writing her first story in first grade and then a poetry collection in third grade. Judy loved her teachers so much that she decided to become one. She taught in San Francisco public high schools for 37 years, especially loving smaller classes and encouraging her students to publish their creative writing.
Judy invited many poets from California Poets in the Schools into her classrooms, and she wrote with her students when she could. She believes she is the only classroom teacher to be named an honorary CPITS Poet Teacher. For twenty years Judy produced a multicultural literary arts calendar with her students, as a way of helping them publish their work in a way that people would read. She always published their poems in the school arts magazine, which was enjoyed by students, teachers and parents.
On a national level, Judy has received recognition for her success in helping students find joy in writing. Her students won many awards, including eight from Scholastic Magazine on the national level. Judy was honored on the national level as well, by State Farm, the Good Neighbor Teacher Award in 1996 (one of 8 nationally); by Business-Week/McGraw Hill in 1994, for innovative practices in teaching; and by Scholastic, The Whitehouse Women’s Leadership in Teaching, in 2002. For ten years she has been co-host of a reading series, Writing Teachers Write sponsored by the Bay Area Writing Project at UC Berkeley, which partners writers from the Writing Project with those from the Bay Area Writing Community and beyond.
In terms of publication, Judy’s poetry has been published widely in magazines and online, and has won many awards, most recently a first prize, two thirds, and the Grand Prize in the Ina Coolbrith Circle Poetry Contest. Her work is also included in many anthologies, among them The Widows’ Handbook (foreword by Ruth Bader Ginsberg) and River of Earth and Sky. Walking Across the Pacific is her first poetry chapbook. Judy’s poetry evokes myriad feelings in its beautiful simplicity:
The Moon and the Room and the Windowsill
that September night as we lay sleepless,
the moon spilled into the room,
soaking the rumpled clothes on the floor
so that hard words spoken
melted as we did, into one another
and the moon and the room
and the windowsill
and us there, still breathing
Her highly regarded non-fiction work, And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown, is about the students from Peoples Temple that Judy and co-author Ron Cabral came to know before most were sent to Jonestown. Of the 918 Americans who died in the shocking murder-suicides of November 18, 1978, in the tiny South American country of Guyana, a third were under eighteen. More than half were in their twenties or younger.
And Then They Were Gone begins in San Francisco at the small school where Reverend Jim Jones enrolled the teens of his Peoples Temple church in 1976. Within a year, most had been sent to join Jones and other congregants in what Jones promised was a tropical paradise based on egalitarian values, but which turned out to be a deadly prison camp. Set against the turbulent backdrop of the late 1970s, And Then They Were Gone draws from interviews, books, and articles. Many of these powerful stories are told here for the first time. In recognition of their work, co-authors, Ron and Judy, were recently honored as Library Laureates of 2019 by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.
Now that Judy is retired, she misses teaching and her students at times, yet remembers that she was often too busy to write. Now she can focus on her own work, and also has suggestions for other women writers, “In terms of publishing poetry, I’ve found submitting to anthologies is a great idea, and connects you with writers (and readers) who care about what you care about. Poetry readings can bring lots of people, too.” For every genre, Judy suggests joining a group, “Fellow writers in the many writing and response groups I’ve been in – or hosted myself – gave me good feedback and encouragement.”
And finally, Judy offers her truly sage advice: “I think for all writers I’d say: Don’t give up if it’s something you care about passionately. Think about your reasons for writing a piece or a book. Many times during the twelve years Ron and I worked on And Then They Were Gone, I thought it would never be published. But because I wanted to honor those young people who died, and those that had the courage to go on living in spite of great tragedy, I kept on.”
Judy has kept on the writer’s path as well. She is currently sending out a poetry manuscript and doing readings and talks with book groups for And Then They Were Gone. She will be moderating a panel, “Turning Tragedy into Hope: Teaching Transformation Through Writing,” at the 2019 AWP Conference in Portland, Oregon, Friday, March 29 at 10:30. The panelists include three other writers and survivors of Jonestown: Deborah Layton, John Cobb and Jordan Vilchez, as well as renowned educator and writer Herb Kohl.
Find out more about Judy Bebelaar at: