Milton Fein shuffled in his pigeon-toed way into a meeting of Bronx principals one morning last April. The administrators had gathered in an elementary-school library to hear a professor conduct a seminar on bilingual education, a program that Fein supported, even as its constantly changing theories and bureaucratic proscriptions dizzied him. To add to his discomfort, he had arrived uncharacteristically late.
In the past, Fein would have driven with his friend Norman Kaufman, who headed Junior High School 141 in Riverdale, just up the hill from Fein’s Public School 7 in Kingsbridge. They wouldhave chatted on the way about school-board elections and the latest Arthur Miller revival, and then gone to the Riverdale Diner after the meeting for the Greek salads that Fein always joked were the size of Greek islands. But Kaufman had retired five years ago, and this morning Fein had carpooled with a younger principal, who picked him up twenty minutes behind schedule and had trouble finding a parking space.
Fein made his way to the only empty seats, at the front of the room. Swiveling in his chair to survey the audience, he thought mostly of the missing. The list only started with Norman Kaufman. Sheldon Salzberg, once the principal of P.S. 94, had moved to Florida. The other Sheldon, Lindenbaum of P.S. 122, had resigned a year ago. David Rothstein of P.S. 24 had just had a retirement party. Fein realized he must have attended a dozen affairs like it in the past few years, often serving as the emcee. For the first time, he pondered his own future.
“I thought, ‘Am I staying too long? Am I a fish out of water?’ ” he recalls several months later. “I looked around the room, and there were people I respected – excellent principals – but people I couldn’t relate to the same way I did with the Shellys and Dave and Norman. We had our little shtick. We came up together. We had the same experiences. That camaraderie wasn’t there for me anymore. I began to feel like an old person. The old Jew.”
Not long after the conference, Fein put in for retirement. It was no mere coincidence that he and his vanished friends are all Jewish. In their separate departures, they form part of a greater exodus – the end of the era of the Jewish educator in New York’s public schools. In the world’s most populous Jewish city, it is true, many Jews will continue to teach and counsel and supervise in the public schools. Never again, however, will Jews dominate and define public education as they did from the Great Depression nearly to the present. Whether the schools of the future will be better or worse than those shaped by Jews, they will surely be different.
Starting in the thirties, and for decades afterward, Jews constituted the largest single ethnic group among the city schools’ teachers and principals, frequently forming an absolute majority. By both numbers and force of personality, they virtually created the institutional culture of meritocracy and union power. When both of those ideals came under attack in the decentralization war of Ocean Hill-Brownsville in 1968, Jewish educators more than any others bore the blame for public education’s failures in the black and Puerto Rican slums. Long hailed as the architects of the Golden Age of public schooling in New York, they were suddenly reviled as racists who could not uplift minority children as they had their own.
Thirty years after the bloodletting, as few as one third of the city’s teachers are Jewish, and that proportion will shrink in the future because so many of them are nearing retirement age. (Exact figures do not exist, because the school board is legally forbidden from determining the religion of its employees.) Just fourteen years ago, nearly half of the 32 community-school-district superintendents were Jewish; today, fewer than one sixth are. For the first time in decades, no Jew presides as the high-school superintendent for any borough.
The lingering wounds of Ocean Hill-Brownsville help explain the odd silence that surrounds the Jewish disappearance from the school system. Yet with every buyout from the Board of Education, with every retirement dinner at a catering hall like Russo’s in Howard Beach or Marina del Rey in Throgs Neck, the social history of New York City quietly changes forever.
“Being Jewish was part of being a teacher,” Fein says. “People in Judaism are taught going to school is a good thing. School and shul – the place for praying – are the same word. And that attitude becomes part of your soul.”
His words only hint at the complex roles that Jewish educators have played in New York, and his life demonstrates them all. At 63, Fein has been a radical, a union man, a bureaucrat, a politician, an innovator, a cutup, a lover of culture, and, finally, an anachronism.
To the strains of a piano rendition of the “Ode to Joy,” Milton Fein ambled down the center aisle of the P.S. 7 auditorium, here welcoming a former teacher, there shushing a talkative third-grader, noting with distress a trickle of soda wriggling down the floor. On this Wednesday, twenty days before Fein’s last as principal, the school was celebrating “The Gifts of Music.” Cardboard treble clefs, spangled with glitter, hung from the stage. Eight pupils wore sandwich boards, each bearing one note of a scale. Fein gave an improbably dainty wave, all dancing fingers, to a third-grader named Christina Suarez, done up by her mother in Shirley Temple curls to recite a poem.
Then, as parents clicked flashes and hoisted video recorders to shoulders, the schoolchildren sang their way through a program of Copland and Gershwin and even “Rock Around the Clock.” When the performance concluded, Fein himself took the microphone to proclaim, “The Lion King has nothing on P.S. 7.” He made a point of complimenting the parents who attended. More than a few had been his students, and they recognized his stocky build and ruddy face, his gray-black hair and pouched eyes, somehow weary and whimsical all at once. “I’m gonna miss you,” one woman told Fein as the audience dispersed. “God bless you.”
Already this morning, Fein had met with a different sort of parent, a mother convinced that someone in P.S. 7 had beaten her son the previous day. Fein inspected the boy, found no marks on him. He thought he smelled liquor on the mother’s breath. When it came to child abuse, the school usually did the discovering, and the parent, or some other adult in the home, usually had done the beating. Fein dealt with a dozen such cases each year.
A drunken mother on the same morning as a tuneful chorus – Fein had grown accustomed to such paradoxes. They typified P.S. 7, and P.S. 7, with its dramatic upheavals in terms of race and class, and its chronic problems with underfunding and overcrowding, offered a fair microcosm of New York’s public schools as a whole. When Fein arrived as principal in 1971, the school counted 400 students, 90 percent white and overwhelmingly middle-class. This year, nearly 1,000 students were crammed into the same building. Ninety-three percent of them were nonwhite, 86 percent of them poor enough to qualify for a free lunch, and 35 percent not proficient in English. A speech class met in a former closet. A bilingual counselor used the auditorium’s projection booth. Boxes of photocopier paper stood in floor-to-ceiling stacks in the hallway. Even Fein’s private bathroom doubled as a storage locker for plastic mail crates.
Once a man who prided himself on producing honor students, Fein has spent his recent years as principal struggling to get even half of P.S. 7’s pupils reading at grade level. He will retire having pushed the number to 44.6 percent, with a twelve-point rise in the past year. He boasts about the result the way he boasts about having seen the first preview of A Chorus Line. But like many Jewish educators of his generation, he searches now for words that can express the sea change without sounding either chauvinistic or callous.
“In the Jewish home, books were part of your life,” he says. “We were the People of the Book. If you went to cheder, you read. The whole idea of discourse on one sentence of Talmud. It allowed Jewish kids, even if the home was poor, to have an emphasis on literature.
“When these children go home …” He pauses. “I don’t want this to sound like an attack, but we were running a storytelling program to help teach parents how to tell stories to children. We got 6 parents out of 800. We ran a Saturday reading program, got maybe 30 parents. If you ran these programs in Scarsdale or Great Neck, what would the turnout be?”
When the Jews, Irish, and Italians left P.S. 7’s neighborhood, beginning in the seventies, they stranded educators like Milton Fein as the legates of a distant empire. P.S. 7 now serves immigrant families from the Dominican Republic as well as Ecuador, Colombia, and Bangladesh. For parents working in garment factories and bodegas, beauty parlors and car services, Fein knows that financial survival necessarily comes before the PTA.
“I don’t want to look at things negatively,” Fein says. “You have to go back to the well. You can’t give up. I’m glad we’ve been able to turn the school around. I wish we’d done it sooner. But nobody gave us a workbook to tell us how.”
Now, in myriad ways, Fein encounters his own diminished status. In his early years at P.S. 7, his neighbors in Riverdale sent their kids to public school and slapped his back with gratitude in synagogue and the supermarket. The last handful of Jewish students in P.S. 7, immigrants from Russia, left recently for a religious day school. Principals in New York have worked without a new contract for three years, and Chancellor Rudy Crew is pressing to end their lifetime tenure. Even social events reinforce what Fein sees as a message of disrespect.
“You’re at someone else’s house for dinner with a few other couples, and invariably the conversation turns to schools, and everybody of course is an expert because every doctor or dentist or lawyer went to school,” Fein says. “The standard remark from everyone I meet is ‘You’re a principal in the Bronx? That must be a tough job. It must be tough to keep those kids in line. I see them on the subway.’ I find myself becoming defensive. I start defending the children, the families, explaining the test scores. Eventually you say to yourself, ‘I don’t want to be in this group again. This isn’t how I want to spend a Saturday night.’ “
The cure for Saturday night was Monday morning, when Fein returned to P.S. 7. He ran the school as part pedagogue, part Catskills tummler. In one of his first moves as principal, he tore out the elaborate system of signal lights his predecessor had installed to summon secretaries. Fein preferred to shout through his perpetually open door. “I couldn’t work those lights anyway,” he says. “I tried a few times and the wrong person came in. It was like the Marx Brothers.” Caustic humor, rich in Yiddishisms, pervades his conversation. Strolling the halls one recent morning, he disparaged one absent teacher as a “schlepper” and hollered into the office shared by three Jewish guidance counselors, “It’s like the Irgun here.” When a staff member complained about her summer-school assignment, he shot back, “We’re not a maître d’ in a hotel here. This isn’t room service.”
Navigating the corridors of foundations and other benefactors, though, Fein can be nimble and deft. P.S. 7 won a grant from the New York Foundation of the Arts to pay for the music teacher responsible for the “Gifts of Music” assembly. On the rear wall of the auditorium sprawls a mural of the Hudson River, painted last summer by students taking part in the Metropolitan Museum’s “Doing Art Together” program. Funds from the Reader’s Digest Foundation paid for restoring and restocking the school library. P.S. 7 was one of just eighteen schools citywide to receive a long-term arts grant from the Center for Arts Education, an organization funded by the Annenberg Foundation. Without these private funds, whose acquisition reflected both Fein’s ardor for culture and his political savvy, P.S. 7 would have been virtually bereft of arts education.
In the late eighties, Fein heard from several of his teachers about Lucy Calkins, the reading guru at Teachers College. Intrigued, he studied with her on school holidays. Ultimately, after decades of conventional instruction in reading at P.S. 7, he threw out the basal readers, replaced them with children’s literature, and deemphasized phonics in favor of the controversial whole-language approach. The Calkins method, at least in Fein’s hands, included journal-writing, “Authors Day” celebrations, and a system of “reading buddies.”
Fein paired himself with Ashley Lucas, a third-grader with the lowest reading score of any participating child. For 40 minutes a day, three days a week, they met: the gray-haired Jew and the child of Dominican immigrants, reading books about the Holland Tunnel and a boy named Lentil who loved music but always sang off-key. This year, Ashley scored in the top quarter on the citywide reading exam. Whenever she passed Fein in the hall, she blew him a kiss and said, “Amor.” But in early June, after she heard of his impending retirement, she ran to him and pleaded, “Why don’t you wait one more year?”
Both the history and the mythology of New York’s public schools would be inconceivable without the decisive presence of Jewish educators. Barely one generation after the newly consolidated city created a unified school system in 1898, multitudes of Jewish women began entering the teaching profession. They made up 26 percent of new teachers in 1920, 44 percent in 1930, and 56 percent in 1940, Ruth Jacknow Markowitz writes in her book My Daughter, the Teacher: Jewish Teachers in the New York City Schools. During the Great Depression, Jewish men actually outpaced women in seeking jobs in the high schools. The municipal colleges that produced many teachers – Brooklyn, City, Hunter – were nearly 80 percent Jewish in the thirties.
What created this phenomenon was a combination of idealism and pragmatism. Teaching secular subjects did arise naturally from the Jewish tradition of religious study. The profession also conferred status: ” ‘My son, the doctor’ and ‘my daughter, the teacher,’ ” as Markowitz writes, “were among the most cherished phrases of Jewish immigrant parents.”
More practical motives came into play as well. Until the fifties, elite law firms, hospitals, and college faculties routinely enforced anti-Jewish quotas. The telephone company and Con Edison, reliable routes into the middle class, appeared to Jews as Irish Catholic preserves. But as the historian Hasia Diner, of New York University, points out, Jews started pouring into the school system just after reformers had wrested control of it from the Tammany Hall machine. The civil-service system promised Jews freedom from discrimination in hiring and promotion. Despite some animus toward prospective teachers with Yiddish accents and radical politics, the accrediting agency, the Board of Examiners, largely honored its vow to reward merit. During the Depression years, with work of any kind elusive, high-school teachers earned the respectable salary of $4,000, and their elementary-school counterparts about $3,000.
“The Jewish narrative in New York,” Professor Diner puts it, “might be called being in the right place at the right time.”
Indeed, Jewish teachers personified New York schools during the thirties, forties, and fifties, the decades that form the Belle Epoque of public education. The romantic view, though, omits a few vital factors. During these years, the city was not absorbing huge waves of foreigners, because of stringent federal immigration laws. Once the Depression ended, both the military and booming local industries provided plentiful, well-paying jobs for students not bound for college or even a high-school diploma. The mid-century school system, unlike its present-day incarnation, did not labor under the pressure to prepare every child for higher education or risk losing him to drug dealing or the minimum-wage sub-economy. Whether Jewish educators deserve credit for the Golden Age or not – whether, in fact, it was public education itself or just the postwar economic expansion that created the era’s unparalleled upward mobility – they became inextricably bound up with the legend of public-school greatness. And that fueled both Jewish pride and Jewish arrogance.
The legend was rocked in the late sixties. After decades of black and Puerto Rican migration into New York, and a growing ghettoization of the city, minority parents began assailing the public system for maleducating their children. By 1966, 45 percent of nonwhite sixth-graders in New York fell below state standards for minimum competency, and of 860 principals only four were black. Attempts to voluntarily integrate schools failed in the face of widespread white opposition. Minority activists and their allies in the Ford Foundation and the Lindsay administration then demanded that ghetto parents rather than the centralized white bureaucracy control their neighborhood schools. In the volatile middle between the black poor and the Wasp elite lay the Jewish educators, publicly accused of committing “mental genocide.”
The controversy exploded in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, one of three school districts trying out community control. In May 1968, the black district administrator fired fourteen white teachers and five white principals. The United Federation of Teachers struck twice that spring and a third time the next fall, bringing public education in New York to a halt and raising tensions between blacks and Jews to a level the city would not reach again until the Crown Heights riot. The anti-Semitic fervor peaked when a black leader, Leslie Campbell, went on WBAI to read a poem by a Brownsville pupil: “Hey, Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head / You pale-faced Jew boy, I wish you were dead.”
On the Jewish side of the barricades, Albert Shanker’s abrasive, bullhorn-in-hand leadership of the UFT shattered his reputation as a civil-rights crusader. More subtly, it reopened rifts among Jewish teachers, pitting the union’s liberal mainstream against its radical dissidents, many of them men who had entered teaching for draft deferments during the Vietnam War and sided with ghetto parents against the system. Most important, the turmoil in Ocean Hill-Brownsville persuaded the State Legislature to create 32 community school districts whose elected boards would hold the power to hire and fire. In theory, those bodies were supposed to be every bit as democratic as the school boards that run virtually all the suburban systems; in practice, fewer than 10 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots. As a result, the unions representing teachers and supervisors stepped into the power vacuum and dominated the process. Many of the Jews whose forebears had flocked to the school system as a refuge from political corruption now set about mastering these neighborhood versions of Tammany Hall. Such was precisely the journey made by Milton Fein.
Atop Milton Fein’s desk in P.S. 7 rests history in the form of two yellowing documents sharing a plastic frame. One sheet is the official pupil record for Joseph Fein, Milton’s father, who entered P.S. 7 as an 8-year-old third-grader in 1917. The other record is Fein’s, commencing in 1945 with his third-grade year at the same school.
Even then, as a 10-year-old with a devilish knack for mimicking his teachers, young Milton understood himself to be the heir of parental ambitions. His mother, Helen, was a professional painter and a hobby pianist, the fount of Milton’s passion for the fine arts. His father, forced by the Depression to work in the family wool-processing plant, invested in Milton his deferred dreams of a newspaper career. All around Milton there lived teachers, Jewish teachers – a great-uncle and a great-aunt, a neighbor across the street, a friend’s father, two sisters who lived in the same apartment building as the Feins. “Oh, teachers were the highest,” Fein recalls in hushed tones. “These were very important people.”
None proved more important to him than a Scottish spinster named Elizabeth Clarke. She oversaw an experimental class for gifted pupils, keeping the group intact from third through fifth grade. From her, Fein learned how to search source materials in a library, how to use the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, how to divine history from literature and the performing arts. “I used what she taught me,” Fein says, “into college.”
Fein’s uncle, a photographer named Harold Bloom, then turned the boy’s talents to the pursuit of social justice. He transfixed Milton with denunciations of lynch mobs, union-busters, and sundry fascists, much as years later he would put Milton’s young son to bed not with fairy tales but with orations against capital punishment. Where Uncle Harold left off, a left-wing sleep-away camp in Mount Vernon picked up, teaching Milton anthems of Labor Zionism and the Spanish Civil War.
“My uncle, the camp, the whole gestalt made me aware of the goodness in all people,” Fein says. “And it stayed with me. One of the reasons I think I’m an educator is that I believed all children are capable of development and that we truly owe it as educators to give it to them.”
Still, Fein took an indirect path to the classroom. He majored in history at Michigan State and interviewed for a human-resources job with Dow Chemical before entering the Army. Assigned to lead a course in military justice, he discovered he loved teaching. And when he found out that teaching in an urban school could get him discharged a year early, he loved it even more. In September 1958, 23 years old and freshly commissioned as a first lieutenant, he took a job in social studies at J.H.S. 141 in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
For the next decade, Fein rose through the ranks, becoming an assistant principal before he was 30. He wed a home-economics teacher, Faye Schenker, whom he had met in the teachers’ lounge. Every Christmas brought Scotch, wine, even fine gloves from appreciative parents. In heavily Jewish, thoroughly affluent Riverdale, Fein barely noticed the tremors of decentralization shaking Harlem and Brownsville and the Lower East Side.
Until, that is, the citywide strike erupted in September 1968. As a member of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the union of principals and assistant principals, Fein went out in solidarity with the UFT, leading the picket line at J.H.S. 141. The strikers marched around the clock, while an opposing coalition of white liberals, sympathetic to community control, sought to reopen the school. At another point, the striking educators besieged a private home where a dissident teacher was holding classes. Big labor and the civil-rights movement, partners when segregation was a southern issue, bitterly parted ways during the New York school wars. And for Fein, as for many of his Jewish peers, the walkout terminally severed the Old Left from the New.
“The message was picked up over and over again that Jewish principals are stealing from our children,” Fein recalls. “I’d hear it from parents in coded language. ‘You’re just here to get the money. You’re just here for the pension.’ Obviously, no one wants to be called a bigot. I know that in my heart I just didn’t have those feelings. But my lines were pretty clear. These people wanted to throw me out of my job and throw out everyone who looked like me. They wanted to take over the school system. I was convinced that decentralization would bring politics down to the lowest level. The only surprise to me is how low it could go.”
Despite his misgivings, Fein managed to finesse the new system and won the principal’s job at P.S. 7 in 1971. The school still resembled that of his own childhood. As late as 1976, surveying a Conestoga wagon packed with students for a Bicentennial parade, Fein saw the familiar mix of white ethnics and middle-class blacks. In 1980, though, he first sent parents a memo in Spanish as well as English. About nine years later, more than half of P.S. 7’s pupils fell below grade level on the citywide reading exams. The slide would continue for years, bottoming out in 1996 at 26 percent, putting P.S. 7 in the bottom fifth citywide. During the years P.S. 7 and public schools like it were deteriorating, Fein enrolled his only child, a son named Skylar, in the Horace Mann private school.
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.”
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.”