By the time the Shepherd was done talking and hugging everyone she wanted to, it was fairly late at night. The Shepherd looked just about as tired as I felt, but I also got this sense that now would be the perfect time to get her to talk about that day when she came to be known as “the shepherd.” I hadn’t really even tried to broach the topic yet. I mentioned it to her when we were going over my storyboards and she actually cringed a little, like she couldn’t even stand the thought of that day. Still, if this documentary was really going to be HER story, that day, those events, had to be there. She seemed, I hate to say it, kind of vulnerable after that exhausting night, so when we got back to the “dragon” house, I asked if we could sip some tea and talk about it.
At first, the Shepherd said simply, “Well, tea sounds good.” She went into the kitchen, got down two mugs, and got a kettle going. I watched her and wondered if I would remember where everything was if I had multiple houses. Wouldn’t you get the kitchens mixed up at some point? Hell, I could forget where I put stuff and I had just one kitchen. She always moved flawlessly though, it seemed to me.
After our tea was done brewing the Shepherd handed me my mug, took hers, and stepped into the handsome living room. A big clock counted the seconds on the wall with the seldom-heard but all too familiar tick-tock, tick-tock. The brick hearth had a mantlepiece over it which I thought would have made a wonderful place to display some of the Shepherd’s many awards and/or pictures, but once again, as in the “tree” house, everything was rather sparsely decorated and simple.
After settling into a dark blue rocking chair, the Shepherd said, or rather muttered, “I’m a ‘band-aid off fast’ kind of person. If we have to talk about this, let’s do it once, to your specifications, and then let that be the end of it.”
This was rather sharply worded by the Shepherd’s standards. She seemed impatient. This proved to me that my timing had been impeccable. I must admit, to my shame, that the thought crossed through my head that maybe this was a sign that I was gifted. I knew how to capture my subjects. I shudder now to think that this was how I was thinking, but there you go. We must all face our ugly parts at one time or another.
“Why don’t you just try to describe the events of that day chronologically first, and then if there is anything I think we might need to expand on I can ask you some questions,” I offered. I was really feeling like I was some hot shit at this point, but really what I was doing was art directing a person whom I was asking to discuss the most painful day of her life. One might say my asshole-self was in full bloom.
The Shepherd sighed, which also served to blow on her tea a bit to cool it off. She took a sip and then began.
“I had been planning the trip for weeks, before the school year even began. I kept telling the class that if they didn’t behave we wouldn’t go but of course we were going no matter what. You didn’t put together a trip to the World Trade Center with 36 kids and then decide you weren’t going to go because Julie talked out of turn. Still, the empty threat worked. The kids could not have been more excited. We were focusing on social studies type topics, you know. Government, finances, how countries are all linked together, that sort of thing. These kids could not have been more far away from that world. They were the forgotten kids. I got them in my class because it was the net they fell into before they hit the ground. They were in foster care, most of them. Not much chance they were going to be adopted at this point in their lives, unfortunately. People want their cute little untarnished babies. Once kids become kids, with personalities and issues and hurt that needs to be healed, people lose interest.”
The Shepherd took another sip of her tea, and the expression on her face…I can’t explain what it was, but seeing that look, I first got an inkling of how hard this was going to be for her. I felt my first tinge of remorse.
“So, the day dawned. Like everyone says, it could not have been a more beautiful day. I was feeling excited. The chance to get these kids to a place like the World Trade Center, for them to see what kind of world lay beyond their very small and hard universes, was fulfilling just to think about. Now I was going to be able to see their delighted faces, and I hoped I’d see a few sparks signaling new thinking. They’d see themselves working in one of those big important offices and they’d ask me, ‘Hey, how can I get a job in one of those huge buildings?’ I already knew what I was going to say, too. I was going to guide them towards working hard, towards staying in school and doing really really well. I had the whole day mapped out. It was going to change their lives. For the better.”
“We were just walking into the lobby when the first plane hit. We heard the noise and saw a lot of concerned faces around us. The kids and I were waiting. An eerie silence came over the kids without me telling them to be quiet. Then we heard over someone’s walky-talky that a plane had hit the other building. We thought of course that it was a horrible accident. We were told to wait there until it was clear exactly what was going on. The kids were concerned. I tried not to look at them in the eye because I was concerned too, but I didn’t want them to see that. Then our building was hit.”
The Shepherd had been holding her mug in her hand for a long while without taking a sip. She looked at it now as if she was confused about its existence. She took a sip and then put it down. She sighed deeply.
“I’m not sure what happened next, to be honest with you. Somehow we ended up outside the building. There was chaos of course. I didn’t know where our bus driver had taken our bus or even if he was ok, wherever he was. I didn’t know if we should run away. I kept thinking that these kids had no families waiting at home for them. If something happened to them and they went missing, no one would know but me. No one would care. I saw people all starting to walk the same way away from the buildings, so I gathered the kids around me in a circle, and I told them we were all going to hold hands. Each person was responsible for the two people they were holding hands with, and if anything happened I was to be told immediately. We were going to walk, not run. This must all have happened in the span of a few minutes because we were aways away when the first tower crumbled, but it seemed both fast and slow to me.”
The Shepherd’s eyes seemed vacant. It was as if I was watching her relive all of this all over again. But she had to finish now. I knew, and she knew, that she had to get the story out into the air one more time.
“Oh Joan. The things those poor kids had to see. Dust-covered, bloody people. We turned around to look behind us every once in awhile, to check on the people behind us. We saw the people jumping. We saw people on fire. I’m fairly certain the kids saw a few people who had already died who were being tended to. I pleaded with them to just keep going. Eventually I told them not to look back. Don’t look back. Keep your eyes on the person right in front of you and also on me. Just keep walking altogether. When the dust cloud from the crumbling building started angling towards us we jumped into this little restaurant. We had gotten far enough away in time that we weren’t in any real danger, but we wanted to get out of the way of people who were running now. I gathered all of the kids into a circle in the corner of the restaurant. They were all still holding hands. I remember that. I said that we were really lucky to be together right now, and that we were really lucky, so lucky, to all be ok, but that we had to stay together. A couple of other people were in there and they asked if they could join our circle. I think they thought we were doing a prayer. And I guess I was in a way. We all held hands and stood in that circle till, well, I don’t even know. I don’t know what time it was. I didn’t know what had happened to our bus driver or our bus. Our school was an hour away. All of these thoughts were coursing through my brain while I was also wondering if we had just witnessed the start of World War Three. I wanted to cry and beat my hands against the wall, but I had to keep it together for those kids. I was their only lifeline right then.”
“Eventually a news crew from some station came in, looking for eye witnesses I guess. They saw me and the kids huddled together and asked me if I could talk about what had happened. I had no idea what I said. I babbled. I mentioned I had no idea where our bus driver was and that I needed to get these kids back to our school. It was the only home they had. I did not cry for some reason. Not then. I am not sure why. I needed to make these pleas, I felt, and I needed to be strong when I did. I don’t know why I felt that was so important. I had this feeling that if I showed weakness these news folks wouldn’t help me. The guy asked me if I had brought all of these kids away from the WTC to here and I said yeah, and when the story ran that night I guess they called me the shepherd or said I was like a shepherd or something like that. The guy got his news van and after a very long trip got us all back to our school. All of those kids stayed with me in my tiny apartment that night. I didn’t want to let go of them, and it seemed like they didn’t want to let go of me either. It was like we’d have to face the new world as soon as we parted company. We watched the news like everyone else and couldn’t grasp that we had been in there.”
“We had been watching in silence as the news started to report that all of the ambulances that had lined up weren’t really being used. We were first starting to realize the scope of what we had seen, and of course we were hearing about Pennsylvania and the Pentagon now, too. And one of my kids, a 14-year-old named Jamie, he asked why we had been allowed to live but so many other people hadn’t. And that was the point I couldn’t hold myself together anymore. We all just sat there and mourned well into the night, not knowing what else to do.”
The Shepherd did not have a tear in her eye right now, and I remembered seeing footage of that interview she did in the restaurant – the one that got her so much attention. She had had that same look in her eyes. That look of determination. It seemed to say, without a word, “I will not be weak in front of you.” I was shocked that she had that look with me, in this cozy living room. Then I realized I had forced her to tell this story. She had known, probably, that tears would be a delicious addition to my little project. And she would not give in. But right then I wished that I had not approached her at all for this project. I wished that I had approached her as a friend. I wanted more than anything to walk over to her and give her a hug. To comfort her. But she was sitting rigidly now. Unapproachable. I had crossed a line where friendship was not anything but awkward, and I’d have to work my way back into her good graces. All of this was said with her facial expression.
“As the days and weeks passed,” she continued with increasing speed, “I needed to do something with myself so I could make sense of things for the kids. I had gotten some attention for “shepherding” these kids out of danger. They got attention because of their tough circumstances. Everyone seemed to agree that for these kids to have to witness something like that was gratuitous and unfair. I decided that if I was going to get attention for this, I would try to use it for some good. I talked about how what I had done with these kids that day was what we all need to do at any time, tragedy or not, for people who have no one else in the world to turn to. I talked about how I hoped these world events would make people realize how lucky and blessed we all are on a daily basis. And for whatever reason, probably the mixture of just everything that was happening then, the attention kept coming, and I kept thinking of new ways to use this attention. I started getting asked to visit classrooms, foster homes, adoption agencies, parents looking to adopt. The media at that time was looking for something that wasn’t brutal to cover and I guess I was good fodder. So it just kept this cycle going. I’d get attention, say something, get more attention, and get inspired to do more.”
The Shepherd shrugged as if all of this was just run of the mill stuff. I could tell she was done with her narrative. There was just one question I wanted to ask, not for my project but because I really wanted to know.
“What happened to your bus driver?” I asked quietly.
The Shepherd smiled, but it was not a happy smile. It was the kind of smile an old outlaw might have given you just before you hanged him.
“I found out later, from people who made it out, that they made it out because of him. While I was shepherding the kids away from that scene, he ran into it. He had been a volunteer firefighter and thought he had as good a chance as anyone to help. He ran in there and led people out, then went back in again. He didn’t make it out himself. He by the best accounts I was able to get was in tower 2 when it fell. His son, Tony, was 17 then. So I reached out to Tony and asked what I could do for him. I felt responsible, you know? Tony said he wanted to work with me to try to help people. I asked him what he liked to do and he said he really liked driving. I’d always hated driving so I asked if among other things he’d want to help me help out others by driving me places so we could make good time. As you can see, he took that offer. And he does much more, much much more, besides.”
The Shepherd always had with her a reminder of one of her flock she had not been able to save. Somehow that seemed completely appropriate. And it broke my heart.