Meanwhile, Fein was growing ever more active in his union and local politics. Elected district chairman of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators after only six months as a principal, he held the office for 26 years. Both the position and Fein's own temperament established him as a force in school-board elections, endorsing and campaigning for the candidates who, if elected, would be his bosses.
"My father's very much a political animal," says Skylar Fein, a computer-graphics artist who lives in Seattle, "and he's always taken delight from action in the political arena. I remember going to synagogue with him and he pointed across the aisle and told me, 'I'm really doing battle with him in the school board.' Then he walked across to say hello to the man, and they laughed, and he sat back down and said, 'We're having lunch.' I couldn't believe it: 'What do you mean you're having lunch? You told me he's your big enemy.' He said, 'Don't you understand? That's politics. That's the way the game is played.' "
The game, however, had a way of turning felonious in the Bronx. In 1989, Stanley Simon, as borough president a key ally of Fein's, went to jail in the Wedtech scandal. The 1993 school-board election in District 10, allegedly marred by vote fraud, led to the indictment of five educators tied to a slate that Fein was supporting. (The case is currently nearing trial.) Fein himself was never implicated in the alleged corruption, but he stayed aloof from the most recent school-board elections in 1996, and now, at the end of his career, he sounds almost remorseful.
"When I was in elections with the CSA," he says, referring to his union, "I was always worried people would say, 'Milton Fein's a great politician, but what kind of principal is he?' "
Bernard Stein, editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly newspaper The Riverdale Press, has observed a similar tension. "When you go into P.S. 7, there's a real sense of spirit, enthusiasm, esprit de corps, among the staff," he says. "And Milton has an openness to new ideas that's extraordinary for someone who was in the system for so long. The negative part is his union leadership, his willingness to take part in school politics. He has left a real mark as an educator, but that's a blemish."
Fein stayed engaged in education largely through his belief in the transforming role of the arts. His own life is almost a caricature of the renowned cultural appetite of Jewish educators. He belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Central Park Conservancy, and the New York Shakespeare Festival and knows that every Wednesday afternoon, Sardi's serves a bargain lunch upstairs for theater people. He regularly buys Broadway seats at the TKTS booth. His son founded the Seattle Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. When Fein's first marriage was ending in the late eighties, he met the woman who would become his second wife, a Broadway stage manager named Anita Ross, who was helping to direct a P.S. 7 production of Damn Yankees.
The walls of P.S. 7 bespeak Fein's commitment in a way the bare digits of a reading score never could. One fourth-grade class recently mounted a display on "Making Guatemalan Worry Dolls." Nearby hung drawings and compositions about ancient Greece. Students in the arts program that produced the Hudson River mural also created an elaborate quilt that adorns the entry hall.
All through the past decade, as Fein remained, his contemporaries vanished. Women now had varied career choices; anti-Jewish quotas were ancient history; upward mobility swept Jewish families out of the city and into corporate law and investment banking. As a result, nearly 11,000 teachers, roughly one sixth of the citywide total, took the buyouts offered in 1991, 1995, and 1996. Hundreds of principals and assistant principals either retired or left for suburban jobs that paid tens of thousands of dollars more than theirs. Fein himself, earning about $78,000, could have commanded six figures beyond the city line. But every spring until this one, he says, he still found himself anticipating the next fall.
"If I was ever going to be jealous that my husband had a mistress," Anita Ross says, "it wouldn't be a woman. It would be P.S. 7. He thinks of every wall, every wire, every desk as being his. When graffiti was popular, he was actually beside himself until it could be cleaned up. He took it personally. I'd say, 'It's a building.' And he'd look at me like I was crazy."
Alone at the podium, checking his watch, Milton Fein watched the fifth-grade graduates of P.S. 7 enter the auditorium for his final commencement ceremony as principal. His eyes tracked from the left-side aisle to the right, alerting the pupils to remain standing. Quickly, he pointed to one boy who had positioned himself in front of the wrong seat.
Fein first choreographed this type of ceremony 28 years ago as an assistant principal at J.H.S. 141. His beige trousers and navy blazer and cream boutonniere were as traditional as ever. But his necktie bore a pattern of Sesame Street characters. Joann Canales, the fifth-grade teacher he always chided for being too conventional in her method, had presented it to him a few days earlier, saying, "This is right for you."