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In Uvalde, he lost 11 students and was badly wounded. Now he looks for a path forward

Teacher Arnulfo Reyes and his mother Rosemary Reyes attend an event honoring his return from the hospital after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Rudy Aguero
Teacher Arnulfo Reyes and his mother Rosemary Reyes attend an event honoring his return from the hospital after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Updated July 10, 2022 at 8:01 AM ET

UVALDE, Texas — On a recent evening, family and friends are coming and going from the green apple-colored Uvalde home of Robb Elementary School teacher Arnulfo "Arnie" Reyes.

The fourth-grade teacher, who has undergone about 10 surgeries, is resting in his recliner by his air conditioner on a hot Texas night.

"You need to come in, brother? You can come in," he tells his sibling at the door of the small home.

Moments earlier, a wave of visitors, who are part of a community "food train," brought Reyes and his family lasagna for this evening's meal. They also brought gifts, including a maroon and silver wreath, his school colors.

His mother, Rosemary Reyes, prepared her son's first meal home, his favorite of bean and cheese tacos.

She's part of a long list of people and things Reyes missed during his stay at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. He returned from the hospital a month to the day of the shooting.

"I'm home to heal," the 45-year-old said.

In late June, Reyes was welcomed back with a parade of vehicles in front of his house. Volunteers brought meals, mowed his lawn and helped him get to appointments.

"This community has really ... come together and done so much together," he said.

The Robb Elementary School sign is seen covered in flowers and gifts in Uvalde, Texas on June 17.
Brandon Bell / Getty Images
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Getty Images
The Robb Elementary School sign is seen covered in flowers and gifts in Uvalde, Texas on June 17.

It's far and away from May 24, when a shadowy figure appeared in his classroom after firing shots into Room 112 next door.

Reyes had just instructed his students in Room 111 to hide.

"I told my students, 'Just go under the desk and act like you're asleep,' " Reyes recalls. "I wanted them to close their eyes and not see a thing."

Then as he prepared to move from his kidney-shaped table closer to his students, the gunman shot Reyes in the left arm.

He wasn't sure he would live.

"I pretty much had already given my life ... to God and said, 'You know, please don't let my children die in vain,' " Reyes said. "If it's my time, it's my time."

"Don't wait for a tragedy"

Reyes, a former Robb Elementary student himself, says he remains haunted by the mistakes exposed that day.

He says for at least two years his classroom's doorknob was broken and would not lock, an issue he asked to get fixed multiple times to no avail.

And he remains confused at the law enforcement response delays.

"There's really no excuse for 77 minutes," Reyes says.

He tries to limit his complaints about Uvalde school district Police Chief Pete Arredondo, who was the scene's incident commander. Reyes says Arredondo is his second cousin on his maternal side, and the two have not spoken since the shooting.

But he remains perplexed why Arredondo claims to have been searching for keys when Reyes' door opened without it.

"I wish that he would have said, 'I'm going to go in there because that's my family.' But he didn't," Reyes said, his voice trailing off.

Earlier this month, Arredondo resigned his post as a newly sworn in member of Uvalde City Council. He remains on administrative leave for his police role.

Uvalde School Police Chief Pete Arredondo (second from left) stands during a news conference outside of the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 26. He resigned as a member of the Uvalde City Council and remains on administrative leave for his police role.
Dario Lopez-Mills / AP
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AP
Uvalde School Police Chief Pete Arredondo (second from left) stands during a news conference outside of the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 26. He resigned as a member of the Uvalde City Council and remains on administrative leave for his police role.

Reyes also wonders about why it took a tragedy for donations to pour into the school. He thinks back to the many school fundraisers selling candy and items out of catalogs only to keep a portion of the funds.

"Why does it take these kinds of situations for people to give out money?" Reyes asks.

Reyes had a class of 18 students this year, but several left early after an awards ceremony on the day of the shooting. The remaining 11 students were watching a movie together.

Reyes argues one of those students killed may have had the cure to cancer or could have been president one day, but now it will never be known.

The school also had a long list of needed fixes, from other doors that didn't lock such as the entrance to the teacher's lounge, lack of insulation in some areas to leaks.

"Don't wait for a tragedy to say, 'OK, well, here's $10 million, now you can have the best school,' " Reyes says, referring to the expected cost of rebuilding Robb Elementary. "Don't wait for the tragedy to happen. Do it now."

The haunting deaths of his students

A framed picture is adorned with flowers and crosses at a memorial for the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on June 25.
Jordan Vonderhaar / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A framed picture is adorned with flowers and crosses at a memorial for the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on June 25.

After he was shot, Reyes fell onto the floor on his stomach, laying on the right side of his face, almost just below his table.

The gunman then shot the 11 students all hiding under a table behind Reyes. None survived.

"Parents lost one child. Families lost one child. But I lost 11 that day," Reyes said.

He played dead for more than an hour, quietly wincing in pain and praying.

During the ordeal, the shooter sat at Reyes' teacher table about a foot away, at one time responding to distant calls from police with cough-like sounds.

"I could hear him so close, with that nervous cough that he had," Reyes said. "I could feel, hear him breathing ... and then I could hear metal objects being placed on top of the desk."

Some items had a heavy and hollow sound, like rifle magazines or bullets. Reyes believes the shooter, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, was preparing to fire again if someone came in the room.

Reyes says the gunman also splashed water on his back, and blood on the exposed side of his face. Reyes' cellphone also began to ring, and Ramos placed it on Reyes' back.

"I think he was ... trying to make me flinch," Reyes said.

About halfway through, Ramos shot Reyes again, this time striking his back. Reyes' lungs started to fill with fluid, and his breathing became shallow.

"He wanted to make sure everybody was dead," Reyes said.

By the time Reyes heard police come into Room 112 next door, he braced for the end.

"I just closed my eyes and said, 'This is it, after the bullets I'll know," Reyes said. "If I get hit by a stray bullet, then so be it."

A spray of gunfire followed as Ramos was confronted, and then a moment of silence.

In all, 19 students and two teachers were killed that day.

"I'm still alive"

Soon after the gunman was shot, a Border Patrol agent was pulling Reyes by the cuff of his pants, ripping away parts of it, yelling out to other officers that he was heavy.

Reyes' sense of humor breaks through even in the darkest of times.

"I just thought to myself, 'Dude, I'm still alive. Don't be that mean,' " Reyes said.

He still doesn't know the agent's name.

Reyes would like to meet his hero who saved his life and thank him. He also has an update.

"I would tell him I don't weigh that much, and I've lost weight since then," Reyes says laughingly.

Reyes remembers his journey as others carried him from the school to an ambulance with no stretcher. His shallow breathing improved with a chest tube.

He was then flown to San Antonio.

Reyes says he has a lot of heroes to thank and meet from that day.

"I want to make things happen for my students"

A constant line of visitors have brought injured Uvalde teacher Arnie Reyes and his family regular deliveries of meals and gifts. On a recent night, friends gave him a maroon and silver wreath in the colors for Robb Elementary School.
Claudia Grisales / NPR
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NPR
A constant line of visitors have brought injured Uvalde teacher Arnie Reyes and his family regular deliveries of meals and gifts. On a recent night, friends gave him a maroon and silver wreath in the colors for Robb Elementary School.

Reyes is still trying to cope with the reality that he didn't 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.

They held each other for a long time, sobbing.

"She had to come and tell me herself that, no, it was not my fault. I had felt guilty," Reyes says. "I did what I was supposed to do. But I still had that guilty feeling, like, what else could I have done?"

Reyes agrees with plans to raze the current school building. He says it could be replaced perhaps with a memorial, and a future school could be renamed for the victims.

He's also thought about the shooter, and wonders if educational pressures contributed to his troubles. He wonders about changes to lessen educational pressures for Texas students.

But he hasn't gone as far as forgiveness.

"I'm trying to come to those terms of where I can actually say I forgive him," Reyes said. "Maybe I'll come to that conclusion, or when my kids get justice ... I'll say OK, we got something out of this."

He also thinks back to when he joked with his students that a film company was going to make a movie about their preparations to pass statewide testing. Now, he wonders if there's a new inspirational movie to make for his students.

Reyes, who has taught in Uvalde for about seven years, is not sure if he'll return to teaching.

He still does not have use of his left arm, which remains heavily bandaged and layered with a drainage tube. More bandages cover his back injury and there's another on his right leg for a skin graft surgery.

He also carries a portable device that helps his wounds heal. It makes even a short walk to the restroom a trying experience.

"I'm not used to depending on anybody for anything," Reyes said.

So the idea of how his journey ahead works is not fully formed, and it's still a work in progress.

"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," Reyes says, "that they wouldn't die in vain."

He says that support 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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.