Caring, compassionate Massachusetts teacher was 'brilliant ray of light'

CNN
Wednesday, October 23, 2013 - 8:00pm

Colleen Ritzer was the kind of high school teacher who made geometry and algebra classes fun. Just a few years older than her students, she used Twitter to send homework assignments and inspirational messages.

Her Twitter profile description read: "Math teacher often too excited about the topics I'm teaching."

Ritzer's lifeless body was found in woods near Danvers High School early Wednesday morning. Prosecutors in Massachusetts charged Philip Chism, 14, with beating the 24-year-old teacher to death.

Investigators did not immediately reveal what connection, if any, Ritzer had with Chism, other than he was a freshman student in the school where she had been a teacher since last year.

Ritzer was "a dynamic and brilliant ray of light," the school district's statement said. "Colleen Ritzer was everything one could ask for in a teacher -- dedicated, passionate and invested in her students. Our entire community will feel this loss for many years to come."

An uncle spoke to CNN TV affiliate WCVB. "She was just a young caring girl who had whole world ahead of her," Peter Martellucci said. "And to be taken so tragically, it's awful."

Ritzer's aunt, Shirley Martellucci, said she had never had any trouble with students. "She always wanted to be a teacher, all her life. It's just unbelievable that someone would take her life at such a young age."

She was an "amazing, beautiful daughter and sister," her family said in a statement sent to CNN Wednesday. "Everyone that knew and loved Colleen knew of her passion for teaching and how she mentored each and every one of her students."

Her family asked for privacy "at this most difficult time," but Ritzer's social network postings offer insight into her personality and passions.

Ritzer loved 'Home Alone,' 1990s sitcoms, math

Ritzer's idea of a great night apparently was watching "Home Alone" for the hundredth time or a marathon of "Full House" or "Boy Meets World" episodes on television.

"Sunday note: Home Alone is the best holiday movie ever made :)" she tweeted last December.

While it's her name in the latest tragic headlines, she mourned when 26 students and adults were killed by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last December.

"Such a devastating, unbelievable tragedy in CT. Please keep the innocent children, teachers, and their families in your thoughts," Ritzer tweeted that day.

When the Boston Marathon was interrupted by bombs in April, Ritzer wrote: "This world is a crazy place. Love who you love and live every day. Thoughts and prayers to those affected at the Boston Marathon."

She also posted a quote she credited to the late children's TV host Mr. Rogers: "I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."

On last month's anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, she tweeted: "Always thinking of the innocent victims of 9/11 and the loved ones left behind who live in their light every day."

She used Twitter to share her philosophy on life and tough times: "Every day may not be good, but there is something good in every day."

"No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind."

To students in her geometry and algebra classes she once wrote: "Full school week ahead. That can only mean one thing: lots of math fun :)"

'She cared about every single student'

When Ritzer took the job at Danvers High School it meant she could live with her parents in Andover about 15 miles away. This would save money as she also worked on a master's degree in school counseling at Salem State University.

"As a dedicated teacher, Colleen wanted to work with and help children with special needs," an e-mail from Salem State University read. "She believed children have much to offer and often do not realize how special they are as individuals. In her application to Salem State she said she was dedicated to 'helping students in times of need.'"

After graduating from Assumption College in 2011, her first teaching job was at a middle school. Former colleague and friend Charlotte Dzerkacz told CNN on Wednesday that she knew after just her first few weeks that she wanted to be a teacher for the rest of her life.

"She was energetic and compassionate," Dzerkacz said. "You couldn't ask for anything more from a teacher or a friend. She cared about every single student and put in many hours after school every day, always thinking about how she could be better and better help students. She was truly a beautiful person."

Ritzer "always had a smile on her face" and "was extremely approachable, so I don't know how she could be the target of something like this," Dzerkacz said.

The reactions from her students echoed the words of the adults.

"There's not words to describe her," freshman Spencer Wade said. "She's such an excellent teacher."

When student Alex Taylor celebrated his birthday last week, Ritzer tweeted to him: "Happy Birthday! Hope you had a great day :)"

Taylor tweeted about her Wednesday: "Actually unbelievable, one of my favorite teachers ever, a great teacher and a great person #RIP"

Just days before this school year began, Ritzer posted a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson on her Facebook page. It resonated Wednesday: "To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."
 

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