The Teacher as Hero: Mourning Victoria Soto

In death, the first grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary became a hero. But before all that, she was daughter, sister and friend

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Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Mourners attend the funeral service of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim and teacher Victoria Soto, outside Lordship Community Church, in Stratford, Conn., Dec. 19, 2012.

Twenty miles south of Newtown, the people who loved Victoria Soto gathered in a small white church in her hometown of Stratford, Connecticut, Wednesday to share the stories of their fallen friend, daughter and sister. If not for the events of Dec. 14, the stories would have been easy to tell. But because of the horrors of that day, the remembrances are bittersweet, interrupted by tears, with much talk of heroes and heaven.

Last Friday, the 27-year-old teacher was killed when Adam Lanza, armed with several firearms, invaded  Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, slaughtering 20 children and five of Soto’s co-workers, before taking his own life. The death toll may have been higher had Soto not been there. Her first-grade students told their parents and the police that their teacher died after herding them to safety and shielding them from Lanza.

(MORE: Behind the Iconic Photo from Sandy Hook)

Her sacrifice seemed to have been presaged. In her yearbook, Victoria chose this quote to accompany her profile: “You got to dance like nobody’s watching. Dream like you will live forever, live like [you’re] gonna die tomorrow, and love like it’s never going to hurt.”

Hundreds of mourners packed the pews of Lordship Community Church in the waterfront neighborhood of Stratford Wednesday morning to pay respects to Soto. Hundreds more overflowed into the front lawn of the church, which sits on a triangle-shaped piece of land bordered by Prospect Drive, Crown Street and, fittingly, Victoria Lawns. Those who could not be accommodated inside the building listened from the rows of chairs set up in the church’s front yard as a loudspeaker broadcast the service. Some wore green ribbons or accessories – a nod to Soto’s favorite color. The overflow crowd did not leave until a motorcade escorted Soto to her final resting place more than an hour later.

Before Soto’s relatives shared their memories, the singer and composer Paul Simon—a friend of the family–played a slowed version of “The Sound of Silence.” As the intro to the song streamed through the loudspeakers outside, several people bowed their heads as if in prayer.

At the start of the service, Rev. Meg Boxwell Williams cautioned that as family and friends continue to mourn, they might experience waves of anger – at times directed at Victoria. Williams says loved ones might question Victoria’s heroic acts and whether they caused her death. They’ll ask, “Why did you have to be so good?”

(MORE: How to Prevent More Sandy Hooks: Arm the School Staff?)

To her sisters, she was the wise adviser on everything from clothes to classes. To her friends and cousins, she was the reliable organizer of kitchen cabinets and Christmas parties. To her extended family, she was the glue, holding them together. “Truthfully you have been…A hero to me for a lot longer than five days,” said Jillian Soto, her younger sister, pausing often to collect her tears. Victoria and Jillian’s younger sister, Carlee said, “Because of her, I am such an amazing friend, because she taught me what it was to be one,” she said.

The sisters cried as they called out to Victoria, like a saint and best friend, asking for her direction. “Please guide me as I try to take on this world without you,” said Jillian. “The pain is unbelievable, but I know I can get through this thanks to Queen Victoria watching down on me,” said Carlee.

Victoria’s Aunt Debbie Cronk talked about her niece’s love for Christmas. Each year, Cronk – who is also Victoria’s godmother – gave her niece an ornament to save for when she had her own home with a Christmas tree. This year, Cronk said she gave Victoria the ornament “to take with her to heaven.” Cronk, like Soto, was also an educator.

“I can still hear her voice the day she called me and said, ‘Aunt Debbie, I got a job teaching first grade in Newtown,'” she said. “I think I was more excited than she was.”

During Victoria’s funeral, white-gloved police officers waited in formation by her vehicle and saluted as the hero she was. And thus, on Wednesday, Victoria Leigh Soto was laid to rest at Union Cemetery in Stratford, Conn. less than 500 yards from the entrance to her high school alma mater, Stratford High. Among the flowers carried from the church was an arrangement of red and gold – her high school colors – positioned in the shape of her class year, ’03. Her graduating class is expected to celebrate their 10-year reunion this spring. She will, more than likely, be cherished at that anniversary. She will most certainly be missed.

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