UVALDE, Texas — The teacher came to her door Wednesday evening, puffy eyes from hours of crying and almost no sleep.
“What do you want me to say?” she asked a reporter. “That I can’t eat? That all I hear are their voices screaming? And I can’t help them?”
It had been about 28 hours and 45 minutes since a gunman charged into Robb Elementary School and opened fire, killing at least 19 children and two educators.
After thinking it over, the teacher agreed to talk to a reporter on the condition that she not be named, in part because, she said, district administrators asked staff members not to speak with reporters — but also because she’s terrified, she said.
Nothing feels safe or normal anymore, she said.
Her students had been watching a Disney movie Tuesday morning as part of their year-end celebration. When she heard she gunfire explode down the hall, she knew exactly what it was. She shouted for her kids to get under their desks and sprinted to lock her classroom door.
The children did exactly as they were told, she said.
“They’ve been practicing for this day for years,” the teacher said, referring to the active shooter exercises that have become as much a fixture of public education in America as math, science and reading. “They knew this wasn’t a drill. We knew we had to be quiet or else we were going to give ourselves away.”
As the children huddled under their desks, staying quiet as their wounded classmates wailed from down the hall, the teacher sat on the floor in the middle of the room. She tried to stay calm, she said. To be strong for them.
What followed, she said, was “the longest 35 minutes of my life.”
A few students started crying, so she motioned for them to come sit by her. She held them and whispered for them to pray silently. Without speaking, she tried to convey to the class: You’re OK. We’re going to be OK.
Finally, police approached from outside the classroom and broke the windows. The teacher called for her students to line up. Quickly but orderly. Just like they do every day for lunch and recess.
One by one, the teacher held their hands and helped each of her students out the window.
“After the last kid, I turned around to ensure everyone was out,” the teacher said. “I knew I had to go quickly, but I wasn’t leaving until I knew for sure.”
She met back up with her students at another school facility across town that afternoon and tried to comfort the ones who were worried about their best friends or cousins from the classroom down the hall. The ones who might not have made it out a window.
Later, as the unthinkable toll of the shooting came into focus, some parents texted the teacher: “Thank you for keeping my baby safe.”
“But it’s not just their baby,” the teacher said, sobbing on her front porch. “That’s my baby, too. They are not my students. They are my children.”
The teacher hasn’t begun to think about what next school year will be like, if she can even bring herself to return. First, there will be funerals to attend. Interviews with investigators, who said she won’t ever really be able to explain what would lead someone to shoot up a class full of children.
“I want you to say this in your article,” the teacher said before she pulled her screen door closed. “Our children did not deserve this. They were loved. Not only by their families, but their family at school.”