Sometimes it was tough to figure out who were the youngsters and who were the adults at West Springfield Elementary School.

When the principal's shoes disappeared, the culprits weren't any of the children. They were two teachers, Barbara Jane Bridewell and Dianne Tenney. When a furious snowball fight broke out in the hall, the combatants weren't students. They were Bridewell and Tenney.

But such high-spirited hijinks ended last month with the tragic death of Bridewell.

Bridewell, who was 47 and better known as "B.J.," and her husband, Alexander C. Bridewell III, 45, were found dead in their Burke home July 19 in what police termed a murder-suicide.

According to police, Alexander Bridewell shot his wife and himself after a quarrel.

More than 250 friends, students and colleagues of B.J. Bridewell gathered in front of her Fairfax County school last week to say farewell -- not to grieve her death, they said, but to celebrate her life.

"We were always in trouble. We were always up to some kind of mischief," Tenney recalled after the ceremony. "You never saw a frown on her face. She was never sad . . . . There's no doubt that she was the most popular teacher in school. Truly, she was like a magnet to {the students}. They just flocked to her."

With the help of counselors provided by the school system this summer, those students are struggling to understand how a teacher so filled with warmth and spirit and caring could meet her end in such a violent, unfathomable way.

"I'm more angry that she's dead than sad, ecause her husband killed her," said Michael Spector, 8. "I can't do anything about it."

"She was so nice," said Kate Lynch, also 8. "It's hard to believe anybody so nice could just die."

"It's just real hard to say goodbye to somebody you've known so long," said Shannon Doubleday, 10, who will enter fifth grade next month.

Unlike the funeral at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Burke the previous week, which few parents allowed their children to attend, the mood at last week's tribute at West Springfield was kept as high as possible, a mix of festive and somber.

With drawings and teddy bears everywhere, Tenney -- sometimes smiling widely, sometimes voice "You never saw a frown on her face. She was never sad . . . . There's no doubt that she was the most popular teacher in school."

-- Dianne Tenney

cracking -- read a nine-page poem she composed filled with fun stories that struck a chord among the children. Family and friends released five balloons, one for each year Bridewell taught at West Springfield. A tree was planted in front of the school's entrance, and each child was invited to spread some dirt on it.

Principal Jane Y. Crim said she wanted to help the youngsters accept Bridewell's death, but without the grim morbidity of a funeral.

"It is difficult, but with everyone working together, that's the positive part of it, that we can come together as a family," she said.

Bridewell, who had taught first- through third-graders in her five years at the school, stressed reading and writing with her charges, sending home her prized "B.J. Bear" with each student for a few nights so the students could write a story with themselves and the bear as characters.

She came up with nicknames for many of her youngsters -- "Pretty Girl," "Boog," "Turkey Trot" and "Bug" -- and would block the door of her classroom each day to make sure she gave each a bear hug before they left. After finishing some reading lessons, she would throw parties with pizza and "really buttery" popcorn, as one youngster put it.

"If you were sad or something, she'd let you come to the front of the line . . . and hold your hand," said Ryan Hayes, 9, who had Bridewell as a teacher for two years.

"The last time I remember seeing her, it was the last day of school and I wanted her to sign my yearbook," said Kate Baylor, 9. "She took us on the playground . . . and she said, 'Have a fun summer. I'll see you next year.' "

Tenney's poem recalled a woman full of life: how she loved her children, Andrea and Richard; how her zest for skiing was redirected toward golf after a knee injury; how she regularly got into one fender bender or another; how she would go to the beach and hold up flash cards rating the passing men.

"Almost all the kids knew her. They'd flock to her side,

And she'd hug them and squeeze them and fill them with pride.

Like a magnet they came to her, all shapes and ages,

Now this could go on, for just pages and pages.

To put it succinctly, it's safest to say,

There was no one on Earth, like our friend B.J."