As a little girl, Lauren Rousseau would create make-believe classrooms with dolls and a small blackboard. And when a gunman invaded Sandy Hook Elementary School, the substitute with a life-long dream of being a teacher died doing her best to keep the children calm.
She read to them, her father said.
Rousseau and the other five educators slain in the Dec. 14 massacre will be honored next week with the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the nation's highest civilian awards, for their efforts to protect the children of Sandy Hook.
President Barack Obama will present the awards in a White House ceremony on Feb. 15 to the families of Rousseau, principal Dawn Hochsprung, school psychologist Mary Sherlach and teachers Rachel D'Avino, Anne Marie Murphy and Victoria Soto.
"It's a really, really lovely honor," Rousseau's mother, Teresa, said Wednesday. "I think it will be really hard to accept. I'd rather have her back."
The staff members have been credited with protecting the students when a gunman attacked the building. Some rushed toward him while others used their bodies to shield children from gunfire. The shooter killed the six adults and 20 first-graders in two classrooms before committing suicide.
Sherlach's husband, Bill, said the six staff members acted with nothing to help them, knowing that they were all that stood between the children and the gunman.
"These six people were the only people that were there to help these kids. What did these people have in terms of confronting this guy? They had nothing. But they did what they could.
"And every second that he was delayed saved at least one life. ... Every three, four, five seconds that he was delayed, numerous lives were saved," he said.
The award honors Americans who have performed "exemplary deeds of service" for their country or fellow citizens. It is generally recognized as the government's second-highest civilian award.
The principal was said to have lunged at the gunman to try to stop him, Soto reportedly hid children in a closet, and the parents of Josephine Gay and Dylan Hockley have said they were comforted by the fact that their children's aides, Rachel D'Avino and Anne Marie Murphy, had wrapped their arms around the children.
Gilles Rousseau, Lauren's father, said state police told him his daughter was reading to the children in the corner of a classroom.
"They said she did exactly what she was supposed to," he said.
Teresa Rousseau said Lauren worked extra jobs to make ends meet as she pursued her dream of becoming a teacher. Hochsprung's husband, who taught her daughter in fourth and fifth grade, was one of her inspirations. Rousseau said George Hochsprung performed hands-on activities with the children, like making apple cider and spinning yarn. He even had a canoe he let students sit in to read.
"He had the most amazing classroom you could imagine," said Rousseau, an editor at a newspaper.
Teresa Rousseau now has the silver charm bracelet her daughter was wearing the day she was killed. It tells the story of Lauren Rousseau's life in miniature — there's an apple for being a teacher, a camera because her father is a photographer and a charm for Cape Cod, where they would visit relatives. As she speaks, Lauren's cat, Laila, jumps up on the couch to be petted.
Every few days, Rousseau has moments where she forgets her daughter is gone. She thinks Lauren can pick up some milk on her way home or give her a ride before she remembers.
"I feel it especially because she lived here with me," said Rousseau, crying and clutching a tissue. "I've been using her hairspray and the perfume she gave me for Mother's Day. She's still, like, in every pore of the house."
Even a mundane moment can trigger the horror of that day, like when Rousseau was at the store and realized she was in aisle 26. The pain is palpable, she said.
"It's just like a stabbing," Rousseau said.
Eaton-Robb reported from Hartford.