His neighbors in Fairfax County's comfortable Signal Hill subdivision called Erik Euler, 14, an affable youth. Teachers found him talented and intense, and students admired a classroom with that added spice to dull afternoons.

But there was a private side to Euler, who was to begin the ninth grade at Lake Braddock Secondary School in two weeks -- a side that struggled with loneliness and a "near desperate need" to be accepted and admired by his peers, one of his teachers said yesterday.

Euler was found dead by his 19-year-old sister early yesterday, hanging by the neck from a rope attached to a wooden beam in the basement of the family's home, according to Fairfax County Police.

"It's hard to believe . . . it's like somebody kicked us all in the stomach,' said Lake Braddock social studies teacher Tina Yalen. "Like most teen-agers, he was troubled with the question "who am I?" but no one saw this coming."

Fairfax County police official Warren Carmichael said investigators are handling the incident as an "unclassified death," adding that a medical examiner will determine if the act was deliberate or accidental, and if others were involved.

Carmichael said a chair on rollers was found near Euler and that the victim apparently had been standing on it. Euler's sister discovered her brother at 1:15 a.m., Carmichael said.

Edwin Euler, Erik's father, said in a telephone interview last night that "I don't know what he was trying to do, but he slipped off the chair and choked. It was an accident. I'm sure of that. He had plans for living, not for dying."

Carmichael said the youth's sister and father were in the house, and "there is no indication that friends were with him. There is nothing to connect it [the death] with the presence of any other person at this point."

There was no note, according to police, a fact that neighbors said was consistent with their belief that Euler "never seemed depressed . . . we just never noticed that at all."

Police were also at a loss to determine how long it had been before Euler was discovered.

The Fairfax County Medical Examiner's office said a ruling will be made in the Euler case later in the week.

Classmates who asked to remain anonymous said Euler had planned to try out for the school's football team this fall. He was just a "really nice person, a lot of fun," said one.

According to Yalen, Euler was well liked by his peers, but he "was never sure why . . . and never trusted it."

A year ago, when Euler was required to give on oral report on music, he wrote a song, Yalen remembered, and performed it in front of his class. Most agreed it was a fine job, but Euler kept asking people, "Did I look too nervous? . . . how did I do? . . . how did I look?" the teacher said.

One neighbor said "there aren't enough kind words to describe what a fine, fine family he comes from. He was always well-mannered, used to deliver the newpapers around the neighborhood."

One of Euler's two older sisters also attends the Lake Braddock school, said principal John Allswood, who added that Euler's mother, Elvira, teaches at West Springfield High School.

Yalen said she discussed Euler with other teachers at the school yesterday and was surprised to realize how many seemed to know him personally.

Other teachers agreed that Euler's mind was "agile and sharp," but one that was not necessarily inclined to rigorous study, and was sometimes distracted by involvements with classmates.

"The choices for them today ae so much more dramatic than they were for me," Yalen said. "Values are thrown at them and they are difficult to resist. They're searching for something: 'What matters, and where do I fit in?'"