By all accounts, Vicky Soto was a hero.
The vibrant and beautiful 27-year-old teacher died last week while protecting her first grade students from a gunman whose motives for killing 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown remain a mystery.
In the days since the tragedy, the world has learned of the teacher's selfless act of shielding her students from 20-year-old Adam Lanza's rage.
The grief over her death hit close to home over the weekend, when some students, their parents and school officials in Durham and Middlefield learned that Soto — a former student teacher at Brewster Elementary School — was one of the victims.
"I felt like somebody socked me in the stomach," said Mary Foreman, a retired kindergarten teacher who for four months in the fall of 2006 shared a classroom with Soto in Durham.
"Anybody who met Vicki loved her from day one. She cared for the kids. Her rapport with the kids was great. She put her whole heart and soul into it," Foreman said.
Soto was a senior at Eastern Connecticut State University studying education and history when she began working at the elementary school with Foreman. She stood out from most other student teachers though, according to Foreman, because of the enthusiasm and excitement she brought to the classroom each day.
"She was a fabulous student teacher," Brewster Principal Nancy Heckler said.
"Obviously the kids remember her and that says a lot. For kids to remember her, and that's what I'm hearing in this community, she definitely left an impression on those kindergarten students," said Heckler.
In a tragic irony, some students will honor Soto's memory this month by decorating their Christmas trees with ornaments they made with her shortly before she left the school.
"Miss Soto was so pretty and an amazing teacher who cared about us so much and sent us post cards to let us know how much she loved us," one of Soto's former students at Brewster told Patch.
Soto also loved her own family and spoke about them often, Foreman said.
After leaving Brewster, she took a job with a school in Bridgeport before eventually landing at Sandy Hook Elementary School where she worked for five years until her death.
"She just had that natural instinct," said Foreman. "It's just such a loss. It's such a loss to the teaching profession."
There is currently an effort underway to posthumously award Soto the Medal of Freedom, the highest award granted to a civilian, for her heroism in the classroom. By late Monday, nearly 12,000 people had signed the online petition.
Foreman said she planned to attend funeral services for Soto which will be held today and Wednesday in her hometown of Stratford.
"You couldn't help but love her," Foreman said.