Who Are They? Stories About The Victims Of Friday's Shootings

Silk roses imprinted with photos of those killed in Friday's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School were stapled to a telephone pole in the center of Sandy Hook Monday. (Cloe Poisson)

"I absolutely love teaching first grade," she wrote in her biography on the school's Web site. "I look forward to an amazing year . . . with my amazing students!"

Soto was the fun one, the kind of teacher who sent a September newsletter to parents with funny self-portraits of all her students in the margins. When she started out as a substitute teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary, she was an instant hit with students, who loved hearing her stories about growing up in Stratford.

"The kids would say, 'Oh, Ms. Soto is subbing in your class today? You're so lucky,' " said Tess Mubarak, a former student.

Soto, 27, later became a first-grade teacher, a job she had coveted since she was a first-grader herself. She had earned all the necessary credentials. But it was a certain girlishness — ("I also love flamingos and the New York Yankees," she enthused in her bio) — that children responded to.

She, in turn, was devoted to them.

Soto was a first-grade teacher in Room 10 next to where the shooting began. She hid her students and by thinking quickly, she is credited with saving many of the children in her class.

Adam Lanza, according to sources familiar with the investigation, walked in, shot her and went back into the hallway looking for another class. The source said there's no doubt the suspect would have fired at more students if he had seen them.

She died, authorities told the family, trying to protect her students.

The last time her cousin Jim Wiltsie saw her was Thursday night, at the wake of a child who had died suddenly of spinal meningitis. One of Soto's younger sisters used to babysit the child. The cousins chatted briefly. With the holidays approaching, they expected to see each other soon.

"She put herself between the gunman and the children," said Wiltsie, a police officer. "Her instincts as a teacher kicked in."

Victoria Soto grew up in Stratford, the oldest of four children in a public-service-oriented family. Her father works for the state transportation department. Her mother is a nurse. Her aunt is a teacher.

Bright and studious, Soto graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University, where she double-majored in education and history. But there was never any doubt about her priority.

Soto's lifelong ambition was to be a teacher -- a goal she pursued with single-minded purpose. "She focused her mind on that from a very early age," Wiltsie recalled.

Once Soto started working at Sandy Hook five years ago, the school quickly became "the center of her universe," her cousin said. She started out as an intern and a long-term substitute teacher for second- and third-grade classes. Three years ago, she became a first-grade teacher.

She juggled teaching and attending graduate school. She was working toward a master's degree in special education at Southern Connecticut State University.

"Her students weren't her students. They were her kids," Wiltsie said. "That's what she called them."

Tim Snellman, father of a 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter who attended Sandy Hook, expected he'd know some of the teachers, but he didn't realize how close the tragedy would come to his family.

"Victoria Soto was a tutor for my son for a couple of years. She was really good," Snellman said. "Really pleasant girl, really smart, Matthew liked going to her. she knew how to connect with my son. She absolutely did a great a job with him. His grades improved immediately after working with her."

"We just live right down the street, and I spoke to her after every session," two days a week for two years, he said.

"I'm so proud of her. Because of what she did, there are parents who can have Christmas with their children," childhood friend Jessica Zrallack said at a vigil outside Stratford town hall on Saturday, shivering in the middle of the somber crowd. "She's a real hero. I wouldn't have expected anything less of her. I don't think there's one person who could say anything bad about her."