When students at Sam Hughes Elementary School return to classes Thursday, they'll have a gift waiting for them. They won't have to unwrap it, but they won't be able to take it home.

However, the students will be able to enjoy their gift every school day.

The gift is a large, two-sided mural, courtesy of one of the school's longtime teachers, Carlos Encinas.

After more than 20 years guiding and mentoring students at the school, east of the University of Arizona campus, Encinas wanted to leave a little something behind for future pupils to enjoy.

Encinas, who taught several grade levels for 23 years and retired two years ago, created two large murals depicting familiar faces from Sam Hughes, well-known desert images and symbols of Tucson.

He felt compelled to spend about 2,000 hours, over a three-year period, completing his artwork on his own time. The school's Greening Committee collected about $800 for paint and materials.

Much of Tucson's history and that of the 86-year-old school have been lost or ignored, said Encinas, 61.

Thousands of people - students, teachers, parents, staff, volunteers - have passed through Sam Hughes, and this is his attempt to create a visual timeline for the school.

So Encinas took his spray gun and applied bright, strong colors to the empty walls.

In one mural, completed last year, Encinas depicts a sun-dappled day in Tucson's history with Redington Pass in the background. On one side there is the UA's red brick Old Main and glimpses of downtown Tucson - the vanished El Cine Plaza and the still-standing, tile-topped old Pima County Courthouse. Opposite are a Spanish explorer and friar, and a west-side neighborhood, Menlo Park, where Encinas lived for several years.

In the center of the mural, is the original but now- erased two-story convento and gardens, a cartoonish basketball player in red, four students and Jim Tallmadge, the school's longtime chess instructor and former math teacher, known to many as Mr. T, who now volunteers at the school.

In the second mural, which he completed earlier this year, Encinas portrays the Tucson Mountains bathed in a sunset and a representation of the state's flag. Five students dominate the middle of the work - two of whom are Encinas' sons, Max and Marcos Encinas, both of whom attended Sam Hughes. The school's namesake, a mid-1800s Tucson pioneer, is seen in a black suit and hat. The scene is sandwiched by San Xavier Mission and a steam engine belching white smoke pulling several cars.

The image of the chugging steam engine is special to Encinas. Trains fundamentally changed Tucson when they arrived in the late 1800s and the image is a nod to his father and all the Tucsonans who worked at the East 22nd Street train yard near South Kino Parkway. (In 2001, Encinas wrote a bilingual children's book, "The New Engine/La Maquina Nueva," inspired by his 90-year-old father, Manuel Encinas.)

In both murals, which flank Tallmadge Hall, Encinas included a sampling of Sonoran Desert life - coyote, ocotillo, tortoise, road runner, saguaro, bat, nopal, bobcat, barrel cactus and a water-filled Santa Cruz River.

While none of the students is named in the murals, Encinas said several were in his classes - Karla Tentschert, Anna Valencia, Abigail Walls, Owen Dotson and Harry Lei.

Encinas said he employed several styles and different perspectives, to create a "somewhat chaotic" view.

Even before he finished his work, Encinas received critical comments from students who walked by.

One student said, "That doesn't look right" but another said, "That's really amazing," Encinas said.

"And one kid said, 'I've never seen anything like that,'" Encinas said.

It's mission accomplished for Encinas: Im-pressing the students with something new, instructive and engaging.

Encinas' teaching will live on the walls.

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at (520) 573-4187 or at netopjr@azstarnet.com