Nearly every morning last September, his first month teaching at St. Patrick’s School here, Raymond Encarnacion arrived to find the same girl waiting outside his closed and darkened classroom. She stood with her backpack and coat, and sometimes she gave a joking groan when he showed up, because his presence meant there wouldn’t be some pushover of a substitute.
All Mr. Encarnacion initially knew about her from the roster of his sixth graders was that her name was Ashley. So he asked in perfect innocence why she was always at school so early. The answers trickled out. Her father had died, her mother worked a daybreak shift, and Ashley herself was responsible for waking, feeding, dressing and checking the homework of several younger cousins. She usually got up at 4 a.m.
Hearing her disclosures, so unpitying and matter-of-fact, Mr. Encarnacion thought back to his own year as a sixth grader. His family lived in Westfield, N.J., a prosperous suburb with renowned public schools. His mother, a nurse, was his alarm clock, his breakfast chef, his chauffeur to school. “Everything,” he put it recently, recalling the childhood comforts, “was right there for me.”