All through the ritual, Fein took a supporting role. When a girl named Maria Rosa faltered in delivering an oration on "Memories of P.S. 7," Fein patted her back in reassurance. He asked another graduate, Ruben Lopez, to stand and be acknowledged for an academic award that had actually been bestowed during an assembly a few days before; the boy's parents had never received an invitation to that event.
Only as commencement neared its end, just three minutes behind its well-honed schedule, did Fein speak. "If in any way I offended you," he told the parents, "and I know that's possible -- I have that reputation -- or hurt your feelings or was difficult to deal with, then I apologize. In every case, it was because I wanted to put the child first."
Fein was referring to the confrontations that occur almost weekly: telling a troubled parent to get therapy, suspending someone's son for fighting, calling the police to report a suspected case of child abuse. He didn't regret the stands he had taken as much as the necessity of playing the heavy. "Sort of my Yom Kippur," he says later of the speech. "My Kol Nidre."
Afterward, in the lobby, parents and children embraced him, kissed him, steered him into poses for photos. Back at school, Fein received farewell cards from a class of second-graders. "You have the best speaches," wrote one boy. "You have the coolist glasses." Another put it: "I don't care how my report card comes out. but it's good for me you are my best principal my only best principal." The ultimate statement about both Fein and his students came from a girl named Jennifer: "I wish you were my father."
On June 30, eight days after graduation, Fein stood in the school library, running orientation for the summer-session faculty. Officially, this was his final day, the culmination of 27 years at P.S. 7 and 40 in New York's public schools. In the central office hung the notice of his retirement party.
For now, though, for these last hours and minutes, the world still beckoned. A former colleague called to congratulate Fein. A secretary barged into the office, explaining, "There's a parent on the phone. She's been living in a shelter in the Bronx. She's around the corner now." One of the teachers at summer-school orientation, who had been assigned to a different school, refused to leave. Fein dialed the district superintendent to complain.
"Give it to him, Milton," said Dita Wolf, the assistant principal. "One more time before you go."