The principal will leave at night. It will be late June, after graduation but well before the next high school year begins. Before he leaves that last time, the principal will enter through the glass doors; he will pass the security cameras and walk across the carpeted floor. The trophy case will hang from the ceiling in the foyer. The principal will make a right turn, then another right, a left, and then a right. He will open the door to his office and he will stand and he will stare. The room will look like a museum because, for the past 15 years, it has always looked like a museum. Photographs—dozens of them, framed and slightly askew—adorn the walls. There’s the principal with President Bill Clinton, with Celine Dion, with Jack Nicklaus. There are letters pressed behind glass, too, thank-yous from people all over the country who never imagined they’d need the principal’s help. On one wall next to the office door is a chalk drawing of the principal’s friend.
He will look at those walls and wonder how the four slabs of drywall went from blank to full. Each photograph and letter and memento has its own story, and all of those stories circle back to him, back to this school.
When he leaves, he will be 59 years old. In the past decade and a half, a lot has changed. He has been cheered and sued. He has been celebrated and villainized. There were times when he cried so hard he thought he might never get up. Fifteen years ago, no one knew his name. Now he can’t escape it. Wherever he goes, his name is a symbol. He is a symbol. He is tragedy and hope, fear and redemption. The principal and the school, in so many ways, have become one and the same.
On that night next summer, he will finally pack up his office. He will take down the photographs and the letters. He will open drawers filled with hundreds of condolence cards, and he will put them in a box. He will enjoy the quiet; there will be no one at his door to interrupt him, no colleagues talking about the past. When he’s done, he will go. He will make a left, then a right, then a left, and another left. He will see the trophy case, and he will walk across the carpet. He will exit the glass doors. And then it will be over.