‘It still hurts’: Uvalde teacher reflects on survivor’s guilt and healing two years after shooting

Arnulfo Reyes said he wants people to remember the 21 lives lost

UVALDE, Texas – Friday marks two years since the shooting at Robb Elementary School. That’s 700-plus days of grief and recovery — and each one is a painful reminder for Arnulfo Reyes.

Reyes was teaching on May 24, 2022, when a gunman burst into his classroom and opened fire. Of the 19 students killed that day, 11 belonged to his class. He also lost two fellow teachers, and Reyes himself was shot three times.

“I wake up and go to sleep with the same pains on my arm, my back. So if that’s going to last for the rest of my life, then it’s going to be a reminder every day,” Reyes said.

Reyes reflected on the day of the shooting, his recovery and Uvalde’s progress during a recent interview with KSAT’s Steve Spriester. Watch his full interview in the video at the top of this article.

Since the shooting, Lives Robbed announced the Mr. Arnulfo “Arnie” Reyes Award, which recognizes teachers who excel. The group, formed by families and community members in the wake of the shooting, has called for gun reform, awareness, accountability and transparency.

Reyes promised his students he would also be vocal, especially regarding gun violence.

“I promised my kids that I would, you know, always speak on their behalf because they’re no longer here. So I survived it, and it was for a reason. And that’s what I’m going to do,” Reyes said. “I want to honor them in that way.”

‘It still hurts like the first day’

The survivor’s guilt kicked in when he realized he lost all his students.

The teachers killed that day, Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles, had children of their own. Their students had bright futures ahead of them.

“Why did I survive?” Reyes questioned.

Reyes said he has learned to accept it “in a sense that I can try to live my life every day,” but those feelings have returned as the two-year mark approaches.

He doesn’t know when, or if, survivor’s guilt will ever go away, or if he will ever be 100% healed.

The same can be said about the community, he said.

“It flipped Uvalde upside down. I mean, I don’t think we’re the same community as we were before,” he said, adding that the shooting has divided the city.

He likes to think the community is undergoing some healing, but that disunity “comes out” during political races, he said.

For example, gun reform and the botched police response were just some campaign topics for candidates running for political office in Uvalde County. (Two Uvalde County law enforcement officials who responded to the shooting are running for reelection.)

The friction was also evident in the wake of the Justice Department’s review, which cited significant failures in the response, followed by a private investigator’s report that exonerated City of Uvalde officers.

Reyes said the people least affected by the shooting have likely continued ”on with their lives.” He said only when something of this magnitude affects people directly, they call for change.

“Being shot by [a gun] will change your mind real quick,” he said.

Reyes clarified that he is not anti-gun. He’s against the type of assault rifle that the gunman used — a “weapon of war” that has caused daily pain and internal and external scars.

“It’s not a pretty sight,” Reyes quipped.

The saying goes, “Time heals all wounds,” but Reyes still hopes to find that solace.

“We’re here two years, and it still hurts like the first day,” he said.

‘Nobody had the guts to go in’

They sounded like books falling to the floor or balloons popping.

“What’s going on?” his students asked, but Reyes didn’t know the severity of the situation until it was too late.

“It’s got to be a gun, there’s nothing else to it,” he recalled thinking.

Then, bullets pierced the walls, decimating sheetrock within seconds.

He raced to help his students hide under their desks, carrying out an exercise that schools across the nation have taught for decades.

But as he began to get into position, he saw the gunman.

“I looked to the doorway that way, and he was standing there already, and that’s when he shot,” Reyes said.

Reyes fell to the floor. The teenage gunman didn’t say anything but continued to open fire.

“I knew that we were in trouble at that time,” Reyes said.

Three teachers and 33 students were trapped with the shooter for 77 minutes as they waited to be rescued, even as hundreds of law enforcement officials descended on campus.

The Justice Department’s report states that “cascading failures” led to the large number of casualties. Some of those mistakes, according to the report, included a lack of communication and leadership.

Officers “demonstrated no urgency” in setting up a command post, even as terrified children inside the classrooms called 911 for help, saying “Help!” “Help!” “Help!” and “I don’t want to die. My teacher is dead,” the report stated.

Reyes said the delay was evident in some of the photos he’s seen.

“And nobody had the guts to go in. That just boggles my mind, you know, that they couldn’t even think of something to distract him, to do something…” Reyes said.

He wants people to remember their names and that his students paid the “ultimate price.”

FILE - Flowers and candles are placed around crosses on May 28, 2022, at a memorial outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, to honor the victims killed in the school shooting. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

‘I just think about the good times’

Reyes hasn’t returned to teaching, but he thinks of his time in the classroom and his students daily. May 24 will be the same as any other day, he said.

He visits their burial sites on holidays and birthdays and reflects on their quirks and what made them unique.

One of his students, Rojelio Torres, had the drive to always be first and try his best. It’s what Reyes tries to embody every day.

“I think about that, you know, it’s like I got to try my best, too. You know, even when I was at my weakest, you know, I still went out there because this was just a little bit of pain compared to what they went through,” Reyes said.

He added that it’s unfortunate that Uvalde will be remembered for this tragedy. It will be generational in the sense of healing, he said.

But he wants people to know that Uvalde is “more than that,” and these kids “didn’t die in vain.”

He wants people to remember their jokes and their laughs because that’s how he will remember them.

“What gets me through is I think about all the good times that I had with them,” he said. “That’s what helps me a lot.”

Arnulfo Reyes and his 4th grade class at Robb Elementary. (KSAT 2024)
Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles' class at Robb Elementary. (KSAT 2024)

The lives lost in Uvalde include the following victims:

  • Eva Mireles (4th grade teacher)
  • Irma Garcia (4th grade teacher)
  • Alithia Ramirez
  • Amerie Jo Garza
  • Xavier Lopez
  • Jose Flores
  • Nevaeh Bravo
  • Ellie Garcia
  • Tess Mata
  • Lexi Rubio
  • Jacklyn Cazares
  • Jailah Nicole Silguero
  • Jayce Luevanos
  • Maranda Mathis
  • Makenna Lee Elrod
  • Layla Salazar
  • Maite Rodriguez
  • Annabell Rodriguez
  • Eliahna Cruz Torres
  • Rojelio Torres
  • Uziyah Garcia

About the Authors

Steve Spriester started at KSAT in 1995 as a general assignments reporter. Now, he anchors the station's top-rated 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts.

Andrew Wilson is a digital journalist and social media producer at KSAT.

Recommended Videos