The message resonated with Alonso, then and for years to come. The kids would come with problems. An educator's job is to get past the problems.

He had given up a lot to be there, given up what many would call the American dream.

At 12 years old, he spoke no English and had to repeat the seventh grade. Six years later, he was attending Columbia University on a full scholarship.

He knew during his first year at Harvard Law School that a legal career wouldn't make him happy. "Second semester, he came home and told my mom, 'I really don't like this,'" said his sister, Olga Alonso-Cardenas. "My mom said, 'How could you say no to a scholarship at Harvard? It's one of the greatest educations you can have. ... He said, 'I'll finish for you.'"

After graduation, he was hired by a top Manhattan law firm. Still, his heart was elsewhere. David Cantor, a friend who was then a paralegal, remembers finding Alonso reading War and Peace at his desk in the middle of a workday.

After two years, Alonso gave up on law. The decision was hard for his parents to accept.

"What I explained was, I was not turning my back on the American dream," he said. "I was exercising the American dream."

For the next year and a half, he lived off his savings, traveling, trying to write the great Cuban-American novel and searching for his place in the world.

Teaching didn't seem like work for his sister. Wondering why, he dropped by her third-grade classroom in Newark.

"I saw kids who were" - he paused during a recent interview to find the right word - "happy," he said, "in an environment that she made fun. ... There was energy, there was engagement, there was caring. You walked into her classroom, and it was almost like a different universe. It just struck me that it was something I needed to consider."

After a summer of international travel, he took a job at a chaotic high school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The first week, he was transferred out of his assignment as a literature teacher for English learners, and he learned that budget cuts might be coming, in which case he'd be the first let go. He then got a call from an associate of his sister's in Newark about teaching emotionally disturbed students.

"All of a sudden, he became the obsessive teacher," said Alejandro "Alex" Valella, his best friend since high school. Conversations that had centered on books, movies and sports became about his students.

In the boys at Berliner, struggling to learn English, Alonso saw a little bit of himself.

Building a new life
He was born in Jovellanos, Cuba, a year and a half before Fidel Castro came to power. He showed unusual intelligence early on, learning to read by age 3. His parents, Braulio and Olga, prodded the local elementary school to let him skip kindergarten and first and second grades. He arrived in third grade barely 6 years old. The situation was so socially awkward that, after a day, he was demoted to second grade.

The Alonso family declared its intention to leave Cuba after the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. The process took eight years. Braulio Alonso, who once ran a business school training adults in accounting and auditing, was sent for two of those years to a labor camp to work in the sugar fields alongside other able-bodied men who wanted to leave. At 11, Andrés, too, was sent with his classmates to work the land: sacking potatoes, weeding tomatoes, picking beans. For more than a month, he lived in a tent, away from his mother and three younger siblings.

Then one morning in November 1969, government representatives knocked on the door to tell Olga Alonso that she and her family were to be at the airport by 5 p.m. Chaos ensued as friends helped her round up the kids from their schools and her husband from the labor camp and pack what they could.

After arriving in Miami in time to celebrate their first Thanksgiving, they continued on to Union City, N.J., a hub of the embroidery industry that had become the Cuban enclave of the Northeast.

At Jefferson Junior High, Alonso learned he was being sent back from eighth grade to seventh because he didn't speak English and was too young. Most of his classes were with other new arrivals. They mixed with the New Jersey natives and earlier immigrants for gym, where Valella, one of those earlier arrivals, translated for him on his first day.

His parents went to work in the factories, but his father soon got an offer from a Cuban friend to be an auditor for Merrill Lynch. It meant a pay cut, but Braulio thought it would lead to more opportunities. The sacrifice made a lasting impression on his son.

Andrés learned to speak English quickly. By 14, he had moved out of bilingual education. In 10th grade, he moved into advanced classes. "I would get a 94, and Andrés would have a 96," Valella said. "I would have a 96; Andrés would have a 98."