In Uvalde, a 9-year-old anxiously prepares to return to school

Photo for The Washington Post by Sergio Flores.
Marcela Cabralez straightens the hair of her granddaughter, Jalissa, at their home on Aug. 30, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. Jalissa has struggled with nightmares in the months since the shooting, and she has expressed nervousness about going back to school.

UVALDE, Texas – Whenever Marcela Cabralez tries to check in with her fourth grader about returning to school, the 9-year-old stares past her. She fiddles with her fingers. Her eyes widen. Then she gives a monosyllabic answer: Fine.

But as summer break ends, her grandmother knows Jalissa Ybarra is not fine. She admitted as much while recounting a recent dream that her slain schoolmate, a cousin, was still alive. At night, she crawls into her younger sister’s bed for comfort – afraid to worry the adults and remember the day she survived the Robb Elementary School massacre.

Hearing her granddaughter fills Cabralez with a thousand insecurities. She spent the summer watching Jalissa closely for signs of trauma. Some days she is certain keeping her at home for virtual school would be more harmful. Anything can happen anywhere, she reasons, and she does not want to raise her granddaughter in a bubble. She also doesn’t want to give up on the school district. She wants to believe the children will be safe.

But on the day Jalissa confessed her fears, Cabralez’s own anguish surfaced.

“I don’t want to raise them feeling secluded or isolated or raise them in a way that they don’t know how to handle their fears or their anxieties,” she said. “So, you’re caught kind of in this place. What do I do? You know, am I doing what’s right?”

Jalissa’s last day of school ended with gunfire. Now as the Uvalde Consolidated School District prepares to welcome students back on Tuesday, she’s eager to return to old routines – but not quite ready for it. Across Uvalde, families like hers are grappling with the decision of whether to send their children to in-person classes. Many parents are caught between wanting to regain a sense of normalcy and struggling to trust school officials who failed to prevent the attack and policemen who waited over an hour to confront the gunman.

The district delayed the start of school by more than a month to prepare. School officials conducted safety audits, held trainings for staff about caring for traumatized children and fired their former school police chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo. With plans to raze Robb Elementary, students will be attending an old school building a mile away renamed Uvalde Elementary. On their back-to-school website, bubbles mark the schools’ progress on promised reforms to assuage parental discomfort.

Non-scalable perimeter fencing is nearly complete. New cameras have been ordered. A single-entrance passageway will be finished by the time Jalissa walks through in her new Converse sneakers – a test in both whether the district can restore the faith of traumatized families and if scarred students can ever feel safe in a classroom again.

More mental and emotional health counselors will be on hand, as well as security officers, according to superintendent Hal Harrell. Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott will send 33 state law enforcement officers to patrol schools. But even if all of those measures are seamlessly enacted, officials will still have to contend with the skepticism of students like Zayon Martinez. When he learned there would be more officers on campus, the third-grader told his father it didn’t make him feel any safer.

“Who cares if there are cops?” he said. “They don’t do anything.”

As much as Uvalde families say they want to believe school can be a safe place again, the experience of surviving the May 24 shooting echoes too closely to the heart for the brain not to take measures. Parents pushed the district to offer virtual classes – and signed up their children as soon as they became available. The local private Catholic school doubled their enrollment this year and their waitlist is full. Dozens of other families turned to nearby districts in Knippa, La Pryor and Sabinal, where teachers could get free handgun training.

But for families like Jalissa’s, those are not options. Many children in Uvalde come from low-income households and don’t have an adult who can stay home and supervise them. Cabralez was laid off during the pandemic from her work as a paralegal, but as guardian to four of her grandchildren, returning to work is a priority. She and her husband lead a local Christian church, and he also operates a septic tank business.

Uvalde’s tragedy spelled financial trouble for the family. The Cabralezes were so busy performing funerals and ministering to the traumatized, that they could not work for a time. But even as she prepares for the children to return to class, Cabralez doesn’t feel like she can return to a full-time job either, stuck in a sort of limbo as long as her grandkids remain ill at ease.

“What if they need me during the day or something happens?” she said. “I don’t have the reassurances I need from the schools and feel like I’m needed at home. It’s just different now. Everything has changed.”

– – –

The months following the bloodshed have been punctuated by reminders meant to be distractions for children like Jalissa. She was having lunch with fellow third-graders when the first shots erupted. Teachers rushed Jalissa and her classmates to the multipurpose room stage and hid behind the curtain as the school locked down. She was worried about her cousin who was outside on the playground when the gunman approached.

Police evacuated her from the building, and she learned later what had happened.

It was a strange summer. Life inched forward each blistering day as much as it withdrew into its torrid nights. Every news development caused adults to recoil and children to remember. Charities that had nary a reason to visit Uvalde before brought inflatable bounce castles and DJs for family fun days. Celebrities and companies donated bicycles, gifts and toys that piled up in Uvalde bedrooms. Sweet shops and theme parks opened their doors for free. Calls to action and protests emerged as often as supplications to heal from church and elected leaders.

Cabralez often took Jalissa and her sister, Kalia Ybarra, to the local pool or library during the day. While she worked at a computer, the girls played. But there was no escaping the loss. The library entrance is festooned with handwritten condolences beneath a display case with body-length photos of each victim. On a recent visit, Kalia pointed out her grandfather’s niece, Eliahna Cruz Torres, who lost her life that day.

“That’s our cousin, she looks pretty,” the 8-year-old said. “Makes me sad.”

Inside the library, a narrow table is covered with advertising for counseling services. One featured a picture of a boy with a single tear rolling down his cheek and large text reading: “Do you wonder why? Answers to tough questions.”

Cabralez picked up the booklet: “You should take one of these,” she said, directing it to Jalissa.

“I already got one,” the girl said solemnly.

When they run errands around town, the 21 murals of Uvalde’s angels are hard to miss. Every other street corner displays a “Uvalde Strong” poster or an assembly of white crosses. There’s no forgetting, but Cabralez wonders if there is such a thing as moving on, especially for the kids. Jalissa is the only one of the four grandchildren she takes care of who attended Robb. But to one degree or another, they were all impacted by the trauma of that day.

As she tries to prepare the girls for school, the conversations are short-lived. Cabralez said she doesn’t want to force Jalissa to talk, but she makes sporadic comments that make clear the girl is struggling with the trauma.

“I try to forget,” Jalissa said. “I don’t like to talk about it.”

Her younger sister, Kalia, spoke for her: “At night, she comes into bed and wakes me up. But I don’t care. I can help her. Sometimes we play until she falls asleep again.”

“I just try to think about unicorns and fall back to sleep,” Jalissa added.

This was news to Cabralez, who had tried to detect the signs all summer. The pastor has been so busy helping others cope, that she has had little time to tend to her own hurt.

On the day of the massacre, Cabralez received a panicked call from a fellow minister to rush over to the funeral home across the street from Robb Elementary. There, she found evacuated students huddled together, sobbing and screaming – some bleeding – while teachers clung to one another. She had no idea what to do.

“So I just prayed,” she said in choked whispers. The children began to repeat after her. “Remembering their faces or their cries is still really hard. I’ve tried to put a lot of it behind me and just get busy in my day-to-day, try to move on. I would have thought that by now I’d be okay with it. Sometimes I think I’m OK and then the feelings kind of come back.”

Cabralez has kept every copy of the Uvalde Leader-News since May 24. It’s a habit she begrudgingly learned from her father after swearing it off as hoarding. But now, she gets it. The former paralegal wants a record of everything anyone in power ever said or promised to hold them accountable.

“It’s a memory, even if it’s a bad memory,” she said.

The next day, Cabralez found Jalissa and Kalia playing a strange game. Using the teddy bears a local bank donated, they pretended the stuffed animals – named Peter Jr. and Ava – were at school. Kalia administered a math test. Jalissa dressed them in raincoats because the clouds looked ominous. But the toys were not attending any old school and it wasn’t any old day.

“We were playing Robb,” Jalissa said.

– – –

While preparing an enchilada dinner recently, Cabralez queued up the live video link for the night’s school board meeting. Parents had been clamoring for more details about the district’s opening day. How often would police enter classrooms? Who is watching security cameras? Why were Arredondo’s fellow school officers still employed? Will the district take advantage of the governor’s offer to install bulletproof windows?

The board had answers. But residents weren’t sated. The board pleaded for patience.

“We will address your concerns. I’m not going to leave until we fix things,” board member Laura Perez said. “I’ll never forget the looks on those parents faces. Those lives mattered. Those children belonged to my friends.”

One by one the parents of the slain children of Room 111 and 112 went to the microphone. They repeated each security enhancement board members had announced for the new year followed by the names of each person who could have been saved.

“This measure could have saved the lives of . . .,” each speaker repeated.

Jalissa wandered back into the kitchen where her grandmother was preparing dinner. She had something on her mind.

“I am afraid to say I’m scared,” the girl opened up. She explained that in the days before the shooting, Jalissa had been feeling weird, like something was about to happen. “School is not the only place I feel afraid of.”

The girl described how she plans to react if there is ever an intruder in their home and often thinks deeply about the best way to alert her grandparents.

“I don’t like that you sit and think about this a lot,” Cabralez replied, while shredding chicken. “That’s not good, mama, you know?

“I know it’s not good . . . ” Jalissa trailed off.

“When it starts bothering you or you’re losing sleep, that’s when it’s not good. That’s when you need to come talk to me or somebody or to your tía, your grandpa, an adult and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this problem,'” Cabralez said. “You need to start talking about that.”

Jalissa confessed she had long wanted to tell her grandmother what she was feeling but didn’t know if it was a good time. Then she brought up the dream about Eliahna and how it woke her in the middle of the night. Cabralez asked how it made her feel.

“Sad. I still wanted to see her,” she said. “Yeah, I feel sad now.”

Cabralez explained that it was normal for her to feel sad when people die. She reassured her granddaughter that the cameras they had installed outside their house would help. They talked about putting a baby monitor in Jalissa’s room, not because she is a baby, but to add some reassurance that adults were close.

“We’re going to have to move on from that hurt. I don’t know how long it’s going to take us. It still hurts me. It’s normal,” Cabralez told Jalissa. “So we will work at it together. Right? We’ll work at it together and try to get past this.”

Jalissa nodded. She was done talking.

Cabralez was devastated. She is not one of the parents who shows up to every school board meeting. She doesn’t jump to conclusions, but she is ready to raise hell if the school system doesn’t meet expectations. She said her anger over the local district’s systemic failures has waned, but her concerns about her grandchildren and their ongoing struggles keep her animated about accountability.

Cabralez’s job is to put herself aside and help her community heal. But what if the little girl she is raising can’t?

“I just wonder, have I done enough to help her?” she said.

– – –

Later that week, Cabralez and her husband held a Wednesday night prayer meeting at their church, Jesus Christ Revealed Ministries, a yellow-colored building next door to their home. There were no congregants, so the family worshiped together. Cabralez prayed aloud that Uvalde would not be driven by hate as they searched for answers.

Jalissa sang with her grandparents, closing her eyes and sighing into the microphone. In two weeks, she would be in school again.

That weekend, Cabralez took the family back-to-school shopping, hoping that Jalissa’s breakthrough was a sign that she was on her way to being emotionally prepared for the first day of fourth grade. Jalissa and Kalia bounded around Claire’s, an accessory shop for tweens, pouted over the right pair of shoes and tried on new jeans. As tradition would have it, they ate ice cream and raved over their new things. The 9-year-old gently spread glittery lip gloss and pushed her lips together in front of her new pocket mirror: “It’s perfect for school!” Jalissa squeaked.

But as the shopping trip drew to a close, Jalissa was reminded of an upcoming event. In three days, she’d meet her new teacher and walk through her new school for the first time.

She froze.

The school visit arrived before Cabralez or Jalissa felt entirely ready to enter a classroom again. The little girl held her grandmother’s hand. Her new teacher was nice. Everything felt shiny and new. Jalissa was brave and loved the aqua-colored backpack school officials gave her.

But Cabralez found herself overwhelmed. She could not stop the tears when thinking about why they had to do this walk-through in the first place.

“What’s wrong with me, Jalissa?” Cabralez said.

Jalissa looked up to her grandmother.

“It’s OK, Grandma,” she said. “I’m nervous, too.”