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

By Alan Duke, CNN
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Thu October 24, 2013
  • Colleen Ritzer "always wanted to be a teacher," an aunt says
  • Teacher "always had a smile on her face" and "was extremely approachable," friend says
  • "There's not words to describe her," student says
  • Ritzer's social network postings offer insight into her personality and passions

(CNN) -- 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 one of her students, Philip Chism, 14, with beating the 24-year-old teacher to death.

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."

Family, friends and her students echoed those sentiments over and over again Wednesday as they struggled to comprehend the loss.

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

Ritzer's aunt, Shirley Martellucci, said her niece 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."

At a vigil Wednesday night, students were visibly distraught as they remembered their beloved teacher.

"There were no words that could describe how upset and heartbroken everyone was from the loss of Ms. Ritzer," student Brianna Wallis told CNN's Piers Morgan.

A statement by her family called Ritzer an "amazing, beautiful daughter and sister."

"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.

Teacher slayings hurt view of schools as safe havens

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 in December.

While it's her name now 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, in 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 also 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 magna cum laude from Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, 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.

Her students were shattered by the loss.

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

Kyle Cahill, another Danvers student, said Ritzer was the kind of teacher who would go the extra mile for her students and would routinely stay late after school to provide extra help.

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"

Chris Weimert said he was just visiting with Ritzer in her classroom on Monday.

"It's just surreal that how quickly someone can go, and how much we take for granted everyday," Weimert said.

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."

CNN's Alexis Weiss contributed to this report.

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