JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
The lone survivor of Room 111 from the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is finally home. Teacher Arnie Reyes was welcomed back by a drive-by parade of cars, the smells of home cooking and family and friends who are working around the clock to care for him. He says that community support is helping him pick up the pieces after he lost 11 of his own students that day. NPR's Claudia Grisales reports.
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CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: The wind is playing with the chimes outside the green apple-colored home of Arnie Reyes. Inside, family and friends are coming and going.
ARNULFO REYES: You need to come in, brother? You can come in.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sure.
GRISALES: Reyes is resting on his recliner, reminiscing about his first meal back of bean-and-cheese tacos and what he missed most.
REYES: Just the scent of my pillows; you know, things you take for granted. And you're like, I love the way Mom's sauteing the onions to make fideo or whatever. It's kind of been, like, a little bit of a closure for me that I'm home to heal.
GRISALES: The fourth-grade teacher returned to Uvalde one month to the day of the shooting at Robb Elementary after undergoing 10 surgeries. He was greeted with a car parade in his honor and a constant line of volunteers bringing meals, mowing his lawn and helping him get to appointments.
REYES: This community has really, you know, come together and done so much together.
GRISALES: It's far and away from where Reyes was on May 24, when a shadowy figure appeared from the back of his classroom after firing shots in the room next door. Reyes had instructed his students to get under their desks and close their eyes. And he was confronted by the gunman, who shot him in the left arm. The deaths of the 11 students haunts him.
REYES: They're my kids. They're my students. They're my kids. They're my children. And it's like, parents lost one child. Families lost one child. But I lost 11 that day.
GRISALES: After he was shot, Reyes fell to his stomach and played dead for more than an hour as the shooter sat nearby at his teacher table, at times coughing in response to cops' distant calls to talk to him. Reyes says the shooter splashed water on his back and then blood on the side of his face, and then shot him again halfway through the ordeal.
REYES: I think he just wanted to make sure that everybody was dead. And I think that's why he shot me the second time on my lower back, because he wanted to make sure.
GRISALES: By the time Reyes heard officers come into the room next door, he braced for the end. Soon after, a Border Patrol agent was dragging Reyes by the cuff of his pants, yelling out he was heavy. Reyes' sense of humor breaks through even in the darkest of time.
REYES: And I just thought to myself, dude, I'm still alive. Don't be that mean.
GRISALES: Reyes, a former Robb Elementary student himself who is trying to look forward, says he remains haunted by the mistakes exposed that day. His door had a malfunction and would not lock, an issue he asked to get fixed multiple times. And he remains confused at the law enforcement delays.
REYES: There's really no excuse for 77 minutes.
GRISALES: He tries to remain tight-lipped about the incident commander, the school district's police chief, Pete Arredondo. Arredondo happens to be his cousin, and they have not talked since the shooting.
REYES: I wish that he would have said, I'm going to go in there because that's my family. But he didn't.
GRISALES: Reyes has also come to see other struggles, such as the outpouring of money that's been donated to possibly rebuild the school.
REYES: Don't wait for a tragedy to say, OK, well, here's $10 million; now you can have the best school. Don't wait for the tragedy to happen. Do it now.
GRISALES: He's also trying to cope with the reality that he did not save his students. During the parade by his home in his honor, a mother of one of the slain students got out of her car to embrace Reyes.
REYES: She had to come and tell me herself that, no, it was not my fault. I had felt guilty in the sense that I'm sorry I didn't save her, but I did what I was supposed to do. But I still had that guilty feeling, like, what else could I had done?
GRISALES: Reyes says it's refocused him. He's not sure if he'll return to teaching, and he still does not have use of his left arm, so the idea of how his journey ahead works is not fully formed, and it's still a work in progress.
REYES: I'm here. And a lot of it that's getting me forward in all of this is the love that I'm getting from my community, the love that I get from my family and the thought that I want to make things happen for my students, that they wouldn't die in vain.
GRISALES: He says that community love is helping him start to cope with the nightmare of losing all 11 of the students in his classroom that day, students who felt like his own children.
Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Uvalde, Texas.
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