RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's the first day of classes for El Paso's largest school district. Many students are obviously still struggling to make sense of the mass shooting that claimed 22 lives there just over a week ago. Here's Mallory Falk from member station KERA.
MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: Seven-year-old Genesis Contreras is really into crafting. Right now she's showing off little personal pizzas she makes with paper and colored pencils.
GENESIS: This one has tomatoes, one mushroom, a couple of lettuces, and pepperoni, ham and hot peppers.
FALK: Genesis stands in her mom's bedroom. It's filled with her doll collection and craft supplies. She's been sleeping in here since the shooting. On the morning of the shooting, she and her mom, Erika, were deciding what to make for breakfast.
ERIKA: And I figured, OK, well, you know, it'd be nice to go get some bacon and make something nice. You know, I like to make them, like, good, big meals for breakfast. So I told her, you know what? - let's just go to Walmart, and we'll come back.
FALK: They were there when the gunman opened fire, but they were able to escape. They went home and started to pray.
ERIKA: My daughter, she right away asked me, what about the receipt man? I don't know if you know, but at Walmart, there's always a man in the front that checks your receipts. And that was the first thing my daughter asked me - Mom, did the receipt man make it? And I haven't been able to answer that because I myself don't even know.
FALK: Genesis is mostly her same bubbly, outgoing self, Erika says, but sometimes she gets rattled.
ERIKA: Here and there. Like, if somebody creeps up from behind her, or if she hears, like, clacking noise, or if she hears anything that has to do with, I guess, the remembrance of the noises that she heard that day, she does freak out. She does panic.
FALK: Nearly 60,000 El Paso students head back to school today. Some, like Genesis, survived the shooting. Some lost family or other loved ones. Manuel Castruita is director of counseling and advising for the El Paso Independent School District.
MANUEL CASTRUITA: It is the first day of school. That's the beautiful part of that, that it's a new start, a new beginning. So we have an opportunity to really set the tempo.
FALK: It's a delicate balance, he says. You want to acknowledge the tragedy but not retraumatize students. He's suggested schools can hold a moment of silence.
CASTRUITA: You are acknowledging the event that took place, and then based on that then depending on where children are and adults are, then you follow suit from that.
FALK: Castruita says teachers have been trained to look for signs that a student might be struggling, like withdrawal or emotional outbursts. Little kids often get clingy. Those students might get referred to counselors. For her part, Genesis Contreras is sort of looking forward to school.
What are you most excited for?
GENESIS: Meeting my friends. That's probably it 'cause I'm really scared.
FALK: She's heard second grade is pretty hard, but she is looking forward to science class. In the meantime, her mom, Erika, is trying to limit reminders of the shooting. But she can't avoid everything.
ERIKA: I'm sorry, but be forewarned, the car really smells.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR OPENING)
FALK: In the chaos after the shooting, Erika threw her groceries in her trunk. But she had to leave her car in the parking lot and wasn't allowed to retrieve it for several days.
ERIKA: Meat, cheese - all of that penetrated and seeped right in there. Butter was, like, literally liquefied.
FALK: Genesis complains the car smells like a garbage truck. And that rancid smell is a constant reminder of the shooting. But Erika says she doesn't have another choice. They have to get in the car, and they have to continue on. And once Genesis is back in school, Erika says she'll take some time to focus on her own mental health.
For NPR News, I'm Mallory Falk in El Paso.
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