Touch Football and a Middle School Crush: After the Fire, 8th-Graders Remember Classmate Kai Shepherd

Kai Logan Shepherd, 14, was the youngest person to die in the Northern California Wildfires in October.

Kai Logan Shepherd, 14, was the youngest person to die in the Northern California wildfires in October. (Courtesy Mindi Ramos)

It’s wear-your-pajamas-to-school day at Eagle Peak Middle School in Redwood Valley, as principal Dan Stearns shuffles down the hall in his slippers and plaid bathrobe.

Eagle Peak’s Spirit Week, which features a different dress-up theme every day, was delayed by three weeks after wildfires devastated neighborhoods in this Mendocino County community and killed nine people, including 14-year-old Kai Logan Shepherd.

“Some people have described him as shy, but that was not my perspective,” Stearns says. “I saw him constantly running from group to group, interacting, laughing, joking around.”


Stearns stops at a classroom on the second floor where a group of eighth-grade students is hunched over their laptops, scrolling through photos of Kai: Kai at the beach, Kai playing baseball, Kai goofing around with his friends.

School was closed for a week after the fire, but the first day back, students asked their digital media teacher if they could make a dedication page for Kai in the yearbook.

“They’ve been working nonstop on it since then,” says Elizabeth DeVinny, who taught Kai in her honors English class last year. “They’ve been gathering photos and even asking if they could have extra space, because they have so much that their classmates want to say and their teachers want to say.”

Janeane Higdon (left) and Joshua Harding work on the yearbook dedication page for Kai. (April Dembosky)

Kai loved sports. One of his best friends, Brenton Wheeler, took a video of Kai competing in a wrestling match last year.

“After he was done wrestling … he kinda … he smiled. Even though he lost, he smiled, and, kept his chin up,” Brenton remembers.

Winning or losing, he always walked off the mat with a smile, says Shane Stearns, another of Kai’s friends.

The three boys played touch football every morning on the blacktop at school, he says. Kai was the quarterback.

“He would get frustrated easily, but …,” Brenton says.

“He’d always be laughing when he was arguing, though,” Shane finishes.

Shane Stearns, foreground, and Brenton Wheeler, friends of Kai’s, edit photos of Kai they plan to use in the yearbook. (April Dembosky)

Kai had other dimensions, and Janeane Higdon, 13, wants to show the side of him that she knew in the yearbook.

“On the outside, I know he was very athletic. But on Instagram, he’d just act like a totally different person. He would talk about nerd stuff like Magic and video games,” she says. “Deep down inside, I think he was a nerd.”

For their celebration of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, students put together an altar for Kai. It has a baseball and football on it. And a box of Kai’s favorite cereal: Golden Grahams. Janeane draped a special necklace over the box.

Students at Eagle Peak Middle School built an altar in Kai’s memory for Day of the Dead. (April Dembosky)

“We had matching shark-tooth necklaces from Six Flags,” she says, the kind that are sold in pairs.

Janeane kept one, and gave the other one to Kai.

“I had a crush on Kai last year,” she says. “So I brought him back a necklace. And he wore it, I think, twice. And then he put it on his shelf, I’m pretty sure he told me. So I had one of his best friends deliver it to him, ’cause I was kind of scared to.”

They started messaging over Instagram. Janeane wrote poems about him in her honors English class, including an ode to Kai’s blue eyes.

Because your eyes are as blue as the sky,
they make me get butterflies.
Because your eyes are as blue as the sky,
around you they make me feel shy.
Because your eyes are as blue as the sky,
they make me feel high.
Because your eyes are as blue as the sky,
they make me love the plain dull sky
Because your eyes are as blue as the sky,
thoughts of you preoccupy my mind
Because your eyes are as blue as the sky,
they’re prettier than a dragon’s eye….

Janeane Higdon looks at a selfie she took during Spirit Week last year. She is in the front with red hair. Kai is in the back row on the left. (April Dembosky)

Janeane gave a couple of her poems to Kai, and he told her he liked them because they reminded him of rap music. She was never really sure, though, what Kai thought about her.

But Brenton and Shane did.

“I remember Kai kinda liked Janeane, too, at one point,” Shane says. “I remember him talking about that.”

“Kai would say, ‘It’s kinda nice knowing that Janeane likes me,’ ” Brenton says. “And how he kinda liked her back.”

Janeane didn’t know this.

“It kinda makes me sad now. Because we could have gotten closer,” she says. “And now that he’s dead, I know that we won’t be able to replay that.”

Touch Football and a Middle School Crush: After the Fire, 8th-Graders Remember Classmate Kai Shepherd 9 November,2017April Dembosky

Author

April Dembosky

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues.

Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funerals won the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009.

April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc.

Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.

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