Thousands of students in El Paso are returning to school on Monday. It’s the first day of classes for the city’s largest district, El Paso ISD. Many are still struggling to make sense of the mass shooting that claimed 22 lives there, less than one week ago, in an attack targeting Mexican people.
Some of these students survived the shooting, like 7-year-old Genesis Contreras. On the morning of Aug. 3, she and her mother, Erika, were deciding what to make for breakfast.
“I figured okay, well it would be nice to go get some bacon and make something nice,” Erika said. “I like to make them like good, big meals for breakfast and stuff like that. So I told her, ‘You know what, let’s just go to Walmart and we’ll come back.'”
They learned that Erika’s mother and sister were heading to the store, too, to pay some bills. It turned into a family trip.
They were there when the gunman opened fire, but they were able to escape. The family went back to Erika’s apartment, sat around the kitchen table, and started to pray — for the people who were injured, and the ones who didn’t make it out.
“My daughter, she right away asked me, ‘What about the receipt man?’” Erika said. “At Walmart there’s always a man in 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.”
As she speaks, Erika wipes away tears. She says Genesis is mostly her same bubbly, outgoing self. She loves crafting, and is quick to show off little personal pizzas she makes with paper and colored pencils. They’re loaded with hand-drawn toppings: mushrooms, pepperoni, hot peppers.
But sometimes, Genesis gets rattled.
“Here and there 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,” Erika said. “She does panic.”
And she’s been sleeping in Erika’s room, snuggled up tight with her mom.
Erika is trying to shield her daughter from reminders of the shooting. She keeps the news off, and tells Genesis to stay in her room and turn on cartoons while we talk.
But, she can’t avoid everything.
In the chaos after the shooting, Erika threw her groceries in the trunk of her car, then had to leave that car in the Walmart parking lot and wasn’t allowed it retrieve it for several days.
All those groceries — meat, cheese, milk — “all of that penetrated and seeped right in there,” she said. “Butter was, like, literally liquefied.”
She’s tried everything she can to remove the smell: Febreeze, laundry sheets, baking powder, scented candles. So far, nothing’s worked.
So now the car, “It’s my daily reminder” of the shooting, Erika said.
But she’s adamant that her family confront at least one aspect of the shooting. She and her sister have already been back to Walmart; next time, they’re bringing Genesis.
Students like Genesis are among the nearly 60,000 students returning to school on Monday. Some survived the shooting. Some lost family, or other loved ones. Others are simply reeling from the attack.
“It is the first day of school, that’s the beautiful part of that — that it’s a new start, a new beginning,” said Manuel Castruita, Director of Counseling and Advising for the El Paso Independent School District. “We have an opportunity to really set the tempo.”
Castruita said it’s a delicate balance. You want to acknowledge the tragedy, but not retraumatize students.
“Some of the things that we’ve shared with our counselors, that they can do school-wide is, for example, a moment of silence,” he said. “You are acknowledging the event that took place, the tragedy that took place. And then based on that, depending on where children are and adults are, then you follow suit from that.”
Castruita said teachers have been trained to look for signs that a student might be struggling, like withdrawal, or trouble self-regulating. Little kids often get clingy. Those students might get referred to a school counselor or to an outside agency.
Erika Contreras said she’s already reached out to her daughter’s school.
“They stated that they will be giving her the best counseling they can offer her,” she said. “The principals have all stated that they are aware, and they will be looking out after her. You know, just making sure that she’s okay. And even her own teachers from past years have been calling my phone to check up on her.”
For her part, Genesis is sort of looking forward to school. When asked what she’s most excited about, there’s a long pause. “Meeting my friends,” she said. “That’s probably it, 'cause I’m really scared.”
She heard second grade is hard. But she is looking forward to science class, where she can do experiments and learn about tornadoes.
Her mom is relieved to know Genesis has a school community to embrace her.