The day I became a principal shepherd

Herding sheep - and I am not speaking figuratively, here - had never been part of my school-principal duties until 10:30 this morning, when Mrs. Hutchins called. She is married to Billy Hutchins, the road commissioner in a nearby town. Seven sheep, loosely related to my school, were in her garden. Would I come and get them?

I suppose it all really started yesterday.

Mrs. Doucette, our first-grade teacher, brought seven sheep to school. Her husband shears sheep for a living and he did a fine demonstration for the kids, shearing three bags full of black and white wool on the playground. The kids loved bringing grass to the sheep as they awaited their spring fleecing in a metal pen. They helped load the sheep into the truck once shorn.

Soon the kids were carding the wool and spinning it into yarn on an old-fashioned spinning wheel, taking home long strands that looked like dreadlocks, tied to the back of their baseball caps.

Mr. West teaches the sixth-graders. At the end of the day, he saw an opportunity to save himself some time cutting the grass in his yard: a day's work for seven sheep. So the sheep went over to the Wests' house in Mrs. Doucette's pickup truck.

Sheep need parameters, I learned today. Their metal pen would have been sufficient. Mr. West needed the whole lawn mowed, however, not just 12 square feet. And he didn't want to move the pen around every time the sheep were done with a patch. So he extended their parameters with a roll of plastic fencing. As it turns out, seven sheep will ignore a flimsy plastic fence, even if it is electrified.

Mr. West's class was on a field trip today, so he was not available to take the call from Mrs. Hutchins saying that seven unfamiliar sheep were in her yard. It was up to me to respond. After all, the sheep were practically a school project. I jumped in my truck. The Hutchinses live up the hill from Mr. West.

I eased up the hill, past Billy's dump trucks, front-end loader, and gravel sifter; past the equipment barn and around Billy's father's house. There were the AWOL sheep in the middle of the dirt road, very much shorn, chewing. They cast a cold eye in my direction as I tried to sneak toward them in a pickup truck.

It struck me that a shorn sheep in the middle of the road is a very forlorn sight, mitigated only slightly by the act of standing as a flock of seven shorn sheep.

I turned off the engine. Staying in flock formation, the sheep turned as a unit and trotted away from me, plotting various options. I stepped out of the truck and crept toward them. How different could this type of herding be from recess duty back at school? When they selected the "scatter" option, I knew it was very different.

Thank goodness Mrs. Hutchins was coming down the road from her house.

"Do you know much about sheep?" I asked.

"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 house, heedless of my call. Quite a few lush-looking patches of grass and dandelions were in their new pasture, but they scooted back toward the equipment barn as I attempted to encircle them.

What was that password from "Babe"?

Mrs. Hutchins's superior experience came to the fore. She grabbed a bucket and put some gravel in it. Shaken from side to side, it rattled like grain.

"Let's see if they recognize the sound of a feed bucket," she said.

They did. The ewe with the collar and bell came right over and succumbed to the ruse. Mrs. Hutchins grabbed her and held on. Then I attempted to take over. Getting a sheep to walk in the direction you've chosen is not as easy as walking a dog. It was clear, however, that the other sheep were inclined to follow her lead.

She was indeed leading, butting my thigh with her head and digging in her heels occasionally.

Out into the road we went, Mrs. Hutchins pushing the ewe's haunches while I dragged from the front. Lambs bleated, alternately ahead or behind us, as we went down the steep hill, stopping traffic on a perilous curve.

After 40 yards, the ewe had had enough of the push-me-pull-you procession and lay down in a heap on the soft shoulder. She was all done. The other six sheep kept right on going, following the yellow center line of the pavement down the hill. After a few more yards, they seemed to recognize Mr. West's lawn, turned in his driveway and resumed grass cutting as if they had never sojourned at the Hutchins.

A neighbor stopped his truck, sized up the situation, and kept the six fixed in position. Mrs. Hutchins held on to the exasperated ewe. I went back for my truck. Traffic was stopping in both directions, as people wanted to see if the ewe was OK.

"She's just being stubborn," Mrs. Hutchins explained, and waved them on.

When I returned with the truck, we heaved the ewe into the back like a sack of coal, and I drove her down to the rest of the flock. We resurrected the metal pen and stashed the ewe inside as bait for the others. They got with the plan. The prodigal sheep were back where they belonged. Mr. West returned to school with the sixth- graders, having had a delightful trip, oblivious of the sheep escapade.

I returned to my other flock - speaking very much figuratively here - content to have a new, rare line in my rsum.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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