By Neil H. Dempsey
DANVERS — Close to a thousand people gathered last night at an impromptu vigil at Danvers High School to remember math teacher Colleen Ritzer as a buoyant and dedicated young educator.
Students, many of them with tears in their eyes, lit candles and left stuffed animals, flowers and homemade signs for Ritzer at a makeshift memorial on Cabot Road, then gathered in the chilly parking lot adjacent to the tennis courts, on the opposite side of the school from where the teacher’s body was found late Tuesday night.
They were joined by parents, teachers, school administrators and members of the public, as well as crowds of news media gathered on the sidewalk across Cabot Road.
Students said they were confused, saddened and shocked by Ritzer’s murder.
“You wouldn’t think it would happen in like, Danvers,” said Gino Limongiello, 15, a sophomore at the school who spent the day off watching news about the incident and hanging out with his brother Anthony, an 18-year-old senior.
“We just kept talking about how it doesn’t feel real,” Anthony said. “It’s crazy.”
The Limongiello brothers said social media websites like Twitter had erupted with multiple rumors about the murder itself and the suspect behind it, a sentiment frequently expressed by students at the vigil.
Jenna Glazier, a 16-year-old junior and former student of Ritzer, remembered her as a generous, dedicated and helpful teacher who often told students, “Yay proofs!” in reference to a mathematical exercise that some begrudged.
“She was known for her positive energy,” said John Tibbetts, a 16-year-old junior.
“She just always had a huge smile on her face, and she was always willing to help everyone,” said Kelsey Brooks Jr., a 16-year-old junior.
“She loved teaching,” said Kara Behen, a 14-year-old freshman. “She was just ... amazing.”
Behen said she’d last seen Ritzer during the 1 p.m. to 1:55 p.m. algebra class she shared with suspect Philip Daniel Chism on Tuesday, just hours before the murder. Nothing had seemed amiss between the two, though Chism had become withdrawn over the past couple weeks, she said.
“He used to do group work, and now he sits alone,” she said, adding that Chism rarely said much to classmates and often listened to headphones.
Rob Prentiss, father of 14-year-old Lizzie Prentiss, a sophomore at the high school who had Ritzer in her homeroom last year, said her daughter’s field hockey teammates had gathered at his and his wife Tricia’s residence yesterday to discuss what had happened and “ask the questions that need to be asked.” Coach Jill McGinnity was also present.
Prentiss said the tragedy wasn’t just difficult for students to absorb because it involved a teacher, but because it involved a student, as well.
“They’re trying to wrap their head around that kid who was sitting next to them in math class yesterday, and today he’s in prison,” said Prentiss. “Things like this don’t happen in Danvers; they happen anywhere else. Suddenly, we’re Anywhere U.S.A.”
Police Chief Neil Ouellette and Danvers Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Dana made brief comments to the press following the vigil.
“Today has been a very difficult day for our community,” Ouellette said. He called Ritzer a dedicated teacher who had an “amazing and positive impact” on the students and school.
“The students came together this evening of their own accord,” he said.
Dana said that the school and community would take time to digest the tragedy.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with her family,” Dana said.
One girl fainted during the vigil and was attended to by emergency personnel.
A homemade sign at the Cabot Road memorial quoted a recent statement that Ritzer had made on her Twitter account: “No matter what happens in life, be good to people,” it read. “Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.”
Staff writer Neil Dempsey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.