"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.''