Victoria Soto Was Prepared For Last, Selfless Lesson

Professor Leslie Ricklin noticed it early on. Victoria Soto was different than the other teacher candidates in Ricklin's social-studies methods course at Eastern Connecticut State University.

It wasn't Vicki Leigh Soto's boundless energy or even the effortless way that she became a leader in the class.

It was what she did with the information. She took it in, and turned, almost palpably, Ricklin recalls, to a point in the future, to a time when she herself would be in front of an elementary school class. And she envisioned, and crafted, how she would teach that lesson to not only a classroom of children, but to a group of kids of different aptitudes and attention spans and home lives.

"She just didn't sit in your class,'' Rifkin said of Soto. "She absorbed your class. We are talking about some controversial issues. Christopher Columbus; the definition of a family. ... Vicki would be figuring out how she would make it hers, so she could pass it on. Teaching was not an abstraction to her.''

Does this help explain what Soto would do nearly five years later when gunman Adam Lanza entered her classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School after slaughtering every child and teacher Lauren Rosseau in the next room? She ushered special education teacher Anne Marie Murphy and several children under her desk. She moved other children behind a bookcase or barrier. When Lanza came in, Soto was the only one he saw. She faced him. He killed her, and then he killed the children and Murphy under the desk. Murphy died shielding a child in her arms. Other children escaped the classroom. Soto's actions saved children's lives.

Only God knows what guided her. But a construct emerges when the recollections of people who knew her over the 27 years of her life are considered:

Vicki Soto had worked consciously for as long as 13 years, since she was a freshman at Stratford High School, to become an impeccably prepared school teacher. She milked every class, every student-teaching opportunity, every internship, every assignment as a substitute teacher, every tutoring session she gave, every week of the three years she taught first grade at Sandy Hook Elementary, to amass the tools that she decided she needed to be a complete teacher for every single kid in her classroom.

So it is likely then, coming of age as she did following the Virginia Tech massacre, in an era when the term "active shooter" joined our lexicon, that she also milked every safety drill at Sandy Hook Elementary for everything it was worth, that she envisioned herself responding in a crisis in the same way that she had seen herself explaining to students that a child could have two mommies, or that there were already folks here when Christopher Columbus "discovered" America. It is plausible that she had decided what she would do, and that she acted on that decision when the time came.

"She was the last one who wanted hero status,'' said Mary Foreman, Soto's mentor when she was a student teacher in Foreman's class at Brewster School in Durham. "What a selfless act, and what a legacy."

"The last lesson she taught,'' said Foreman, "is that a teacher will do anything to protect her children.''

Rock Of Family

Soto grew up in a Cape-Cod style home on close-knit, middle-class Knowlton Street in Stratford, with younger sisters Jillian and Carlee, and younger brother Carlos Matthew.

Her father, Carlos, has worked for more than 22 years as a heavy-equipment operator for the state Department of Transportation. He works on highway bridges and was a union safety steward. Her mother, Donna, has been a nurse at Bridgeport Hospital for 28 years. In 2004, Donna Soto won a Nightingale award from a regional nursing association for having a marked impact on her patients, "going beyond the call of duty" and "demonstrating excellence."

Soto also drew inspiration from her aunt, Debra Lee Cronk, who retired in June after a long career as an elementary school teacher in Stratford. Soto had a close relationship with a cousin, James Wiltsie of Stratford, a ramrod-straight Marine who fought in Somalia in the early 1990s.

"I watched her since birth,'' Wiltsie, 39, said. "Vicki took charge. She was the ringleader of the family ... from Secret Santa to family vacations. She was the rock of the family. The driving force."

Her work ethic and comitment to school set an example for her sisters and brother, Wiltsie said.

At 10 years old, Soto was belting out spiritual songs in the children's choir at Lordship Community Church in Stratford.

"She came from a very strong churchgoing family,'' said the Rev. Meg Williams, pastor of the Lordship church at the time. "And she was full of positive energy, and had that bright smile.''

Williams left that posting 12 years ago.

She presided over Soto's funeral last week.

"I had to come back,'' she said.

At 14, as a freshman at Stratford High, Soto was already talking about becoming a school teacher like her Aunt Deb, said high school friend Jessica Zrallack.

"She was just that girl in school, with this welcoming, friendly face; you couldn't dislike her,'' said Zrallack, who went on to serve six years in the National Guard and now works in the U.S. Department of State's passport agency in Stamford.

This was the generation before Facebook friends and sexting.

"Friendships were real, and we were a small, close community,'' said Zrallack.

"Vicki wanted to be a teacher and she set about making it happen,'' Zrallack said. "What else can you ask for but to be living your dream."

She stood on line for five hours at Soto's wake.

"I would have stood in line for a week,'' Zrallack said, "to shake the hands of the parents who raised a hero."

'Vicki Made The Plans'

Soto enrolled in the education program at Eastern in 2004.

She made the transition to a busy campus environment with her trademark ease.

"I met her as a freshman,'' said Rachael Schiavone, a communications major who now works in the media field. "She was just a ball of energy. She had this excitement for life. I wanted to be her friend and I wanted to be her roommate.''

The two would become best friends and live together on campus for three years.

Socially, "Vicki made the plans. She was the one who got things going and got us together,'' said Schiavone.

In the classroom, "she was among the leaders,'' said Professor Hari Koirala, the chairman of education department who taught math methods and geometry courses to Soto.

"You know, she was bound to be an excellent teacher,'' Koirala said. "She asked herself: 'How will I teach this to my kids?" She wasn't learning only for herself."

"There are a lot of variations among teacher candidates,'' Koirala said. "In math, some will say, 'Do I really need to do this?' But Vicki was trying to get all she could out of it. She never gave up.''

Ricklin, an oft-consulted expert in secondary education at Eastern, said she only had one regret concerning Soto.

"I wish I was her adviser,'' Ricklin said. "I could have known her better, beyond the context of my classroom.''

Schiavone and Soto remained close after college.

"I saw her do amazing things at Sandy Hook. She'd be up late at night, doing billboards, coming up with all these activities,'' said Schiavone. "This was a person who knew the value of every day of life, and she shared that. When she hugged you, you felt her putting her whole body into it. She was genuinely happy to see you."

"Maybe that is what I miss the most right now, actually feeling one of her hugs.''

'She Hung In There'

Soto's student-teaching assignment took her from Eastern's Willimantic campus to Brewster School in the rural Durham-Middlefield district.

She was assigned to Mary Foreman's kindergarten class.

It didn't take her long to make her usual impression.

"We had an initial meeting. 'Was I a good fit for her? Was she a good fit for me?' That sort of thing. Well, let me tell you. I didn't hesitate. I got such a good feeling from her.''

At Brewster, Soto would go "over and beyond what was required,'' Foreman said. "She did projects. Her morning greeting was to teach the kids how to say 'hello' in different languages. Vicki wanted to experience every part of teaching. The kids loved her. She was the total package with all the natural instincts.''

After leaving Foreman's tutelage and graduating from Eastern, Soto took on work as a substitute.

"She hung in there. She didn't get a position right away,'' Foreman said.

The day after the massacre, a former Brewster parent called Foreman. "She said to me, 'Wasn't that our Vicki Soto?' It smacked me between the eyes. But I told myself not to come apart. I said, 'Honor her, Mary. Be strong like she would be.'"

"One thing I know for certain,'' said Foreman, who retired five years ago after 30 years of teaching. "Vicki Soto taught me more than I ever taught her.''

Stood Her Ground

Shortly after landing a position at Sandy Hook Elementary five years ago, Soto began tutoring a boy named Matthew Snellman, who was struggling mightily with math.

Timothy Snellman watched with a mixture of awe and gratitude as his boy quickly blossomed in school.

"His performance improved, so I made it a point to talk to Vicki after each session. She told me, 'This is what he needs; this is how he's doing.' This was a young woman on top of her game,'' said Snellman, 48, a Navy veteran and third-generation building contractor.

"She had this no-nonsense approach, but the kids all sensed her compassion and she was very understanding. She walked the walk,'' Snellman said.

In recent months, Soto was shuttling between Sandy Hook Elementary and night classes at Southern Connecticut State University, where she was pursuing a master's degree in special education. Her concentration was in learning disabilities.

But it was the impression of her adviser at Southern, Professor Louise Spear-Swerling, that Soto did not want to become a special education teacher.

"I think she wanted to remain a general ed teacher, but gain this knowledge to really benefit her kids. She had children with special needs and there is a federal mandate to mainstream them. She wanted to be able to reach every child in her class,'' said Spear-Swerling. "She was also very interested in her courses on teaching reading to at-risk kids. First grade is such a critical year for reading."

"We are really putting a tremendous amount of responsibility on these young teachers, who are mostly young women. Vicki embraced the challenge. But I don't know if she was thinking that she would ever have to put her life on the line. So just the fact that she was so courageous was incredible.''

In the hours after the massacre, Wiltsie, Soto's cousin, would share with the media some of what police investigators told him about Soto's actions.

Snellman was floored by the accounts.

"She faces someone, a killer, with a rifle? And she stood her ground? That's one in a million,'' said Snellman.

"I feel honored now that she was involved in my son's life. I will live here in Newtown forever. I would never leave this town, not after what Soto and some of the others tried to do.''

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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