The day Mr. West took his sixth graders on a field trip to the mud flats, I learned how to herd sheep. The two events are related.
It had never been a part of my school principal duties until Mrs. Hutchins called. Seven sheep were in her garden. Would I come and get them?
Mr. West was her neighbor, the sheep were his, and he was my sixth grade teacher. I suppose they were my responsibility, in a way.
I pulled into her driveway. The AWOL sheep were standing in the gravel, chewing, and casting a cold eye in my direction as I crept toward them. A shorn sheep in the middle of the road is a very forlorn sight, mitigated only slightly when standing as a flock of seven shorn sheep.
I turned off the engine. Staying in flock formation, the sheep turned and trotted away from me, clearly plotting new options. How different could this type of herding be from recess duty back at school? When they elected the ‘scatter’ option, I knew it was very different.
Thank goodness for Mrs. Hutchins.
‘Do you know much about sheep,’ I asked her.
‘Too much,’ she replied. ‘This won’t be easy. If you can catch one, though, the others might follow.’
‘Catch’ was the operative word. The sheep were roaming back toward her garden, heedless of my calls. There were lush patches of grass in their new pasture! Now what was that sheep password from Babe?
Superior experience came to the fore. Mrs. Hutchins grabbed a bucket, put some gravel in it, and shook it.
‘Let’s see if they recognize the sound of a feed bucket,’ she said.
Fortunately, they did. The alpha ewe came right over. Mrs. Hutchins grabbed her and held on, then I attempted to take over. Getting a sheep to follow in the direction you’ve chosen is not as easy as, say, walking a sixth grader to the office. It was clear, however, that the other sheep were inclined to follow her lead—and she was indeed leading, butting me in the thigh with her head.
Down the road we went, Mrs. Hutchins pushing the ewe’s haunches while I dragged from the front end; the other sheep bleating, alternately ahead or behind us, and stopping traffic on a perilous curve. After forty yards, the ewe had had enough of this push-me-pull-you procession and lay down in a heap. She was all done.
The other six sheep carried on down the hill. In a few more yards, they recognized Mr. West’s lawn, turned in his driveway, and resumed grass cutting as if they had never sojourned in Mrs. Hutchins’s garden.
I went back for my truck. Traffic was halted in both directions as people stopped to see if the ewe was okay. We heaved her into the back of the truck like a sack of coal and I drove her down to the rest of the flock. The prodigal sheep were back where they belonged.
Back at school, Mr. West herded his prodigal sixth graders through the door, muddy and content. And I added a new, rare, line to my resume: shepherd.
I prefer herding cats—and sixth graders—any day.