At the start of this school year, Eva Mireles introduced herself to her 4th grade students with a few details about her life.
She had been teaching for 17 years. She had a “supportive, fun and loving” family — and three “furry friends”. She cherished outdoor exercise. “I love running, hiking, and now you just might see me riding a bike!!” she wrote on the school district website of Uvalde, Texas.
At the time, Mireles predicted a “wonderful year” ahead with her co-teacher of five years Irma Garcia — and so it was. Preparations for the looming summer holidays were in full swing on Tuesday, including a ceremony awarding “honour roll” certificates.
But later that day, an 18-year-old man armed with an AR-15 assault weapon stormed into Robb Elementary School and gunned down Mireles, Garcia and 19 pupils. All were victims of America’s latest horrific mass shooting and the country’s systemic failure to rein in gun violence, despite the overwhelming public grief that accompanies these repeated, searing tragedies.
Among the dead were junior swimmers, dancers and basketball players with bright, enthusiastic minds. Lexi and Alithia, Xavier and Jose, Annabell and Jackie — to name only a few.
“How do you look at this girl and shoot her? Oh, my baby. How do you shoot my baby?” Angel Garza asked CNN, holding up a picture of his 10-year-old daughter Amerie, who was killed.
In Uvalde, a predominantly Hispanic town of 15,000 located about halfway between the Mexican border and San Antonio, the sacrifice of Mireles and Garcia, the teachers shot dead alongside their class, has also come into the spotlight.
Both in their mid 40s, these women were part of a generation of US educators who started their careers in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre of 1999 and who have lived and worked with the constant threat of a similar assault. Along with teaching English and mathematics, they had to be ready to protect their classrooms from armed assailants — shielding the children from bullets with their own bodies if necessary — a role that became all too real this week.
Ovidia Molina, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said the trauma among teachers was widespread after Uvalde. “They all went into school on Wednesday looking for exits, looking for places to hide their kids, figuring out what they would do in a more focused way,” she says.
Mireles was one of the first victims to be identified. Her husband, Ruben Ruiz, serves as a police officer for Uvalde’s school system, and they have a college-aged daughter Adalynn who paid tribute to her mother on Facebook, capturing both her bubbly personality and her devotion as a parent. “Everyone who knows you knows how outgoing and funny you were and I will miss your laugh forever,” she wrote.
Mireles was a specialist in both bilingual and special education — and her partnership with Garcia seemed to work brilliantly. “Their classroom was full of fun, growth, giggles, teamwork, and, most of all, love,” Natalie Arias, an educational technology specialist in Uvalde, wrote on Twitter.
The murder of Garcia — a mother of four who loved music and barbecues — has been especially tragic: on Thursday, her husband of 25 years, Joe, placed flowers next to a white cross with her name on it, then suffered a fatal heart attack. “I truly believe Joe died of a broken heart,” wrote her cousin Debra Austin, on a fundraising page for the family.
Being a teacher in America has been particularly difficult over the past few years. Like many around the world, they have been frontline workers during the pandemic. But they have also been dragged into increasingly vicious political and cultural battles over mask-wearing and school closures, gender and race studies, and the treatment of LGBTQ students.
The impotence of America’s political system to cope with gun violence as a threat to public safety — with Republicans in Congress opposing even marginal efforts at controlling the sale and distribution of firearms — has stoked frustration, impatience and, increasingly, anger. Guns are now the leading cause of death among America’s children and adolescents.
“Why can’t we do this in America?” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “We need gun violence reform measures like background checks and getting AR-15s out of the hands of people — we have weapons of war on the streets”.
But for Republican senators like Ted Cruz of Texas, the solution, if any, has been the opposite — to have armed guards at school, and limit the entry points to one door — an anathema to many teachers.
“We don’t want schools to look like prisons, and be locked down every single day. That’s not healthy for our students or for our educators or for the community. We want to ensure that our schools are thriving, happy places,” says Molina.
Even if the latest horror does start to move the needle towards stricter gun laws, it will be too late for the 19 children of Robb Elementary, their two teachers and their families.
“I just want to hear your voice. I want to hear you talking to our dogs with that silly voice you make so high that wakes everyone up in the morning . . . I want to sing karaoke with you and hear you sing ‘Shine bright like diamond!’” Adalynn Ruiz wrote of her mother. “I will forever say your name so you are always remembered”.