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.