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Back Room

Karen Lewis

The Chicago Teachers Union chief, 64, on battling cancer and Bruce Rauner

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

I have a picture of my favorite teacher on my coffee mug. When I had her at Kenwood High, her name was Dorothy Lavington. Dorothy is 97 years old and amazing. She still drives. Without glasses. She changed my life completely.

My father was a protofeminist. I never got treated like a girl. He taught me to bat left-handed, because he said that in the major leagues, the right field fence is always closer.

I was in a hurry. I started taking college classes after my junior year. I have two master’s degrees, but I still don’t have a high school diploma.

I lived in Barbados for a year. They used to tell me, “I know you’re an American by the way you walk.” Quickly and purposefully. In Barbados, the women sway. I sway a lot now.

I had flunked out of medical school and was looking for something to do, so I decided to try standup. Woodlawn Tap in Hyde Park—we call it Jimmy’s—had open mics on Monday nights. I really spoke to the college crowd: I’d talk about my parents and tell a couple inappropriate jokes. I killed.

Yentl changed my whole notion of religion. I was raised Lutheran and had gotten kicked out of confirmation class for asking too many questions. The thing I will never forget about Yentl is when the rabbi says, “We choose our students not just by their answers, but by their questions.” And I thought, Wow, here’s a religion where you can question everything. Now I’m a pretty religious Jew.

The overwhelming majority of CPS teachers are very good at what they do. There’s stuff you can’t evaluate, like how we help families survive.

I had made up my mind to run for mayor. And my numbers kept getting better. We were out in South Shore, and my campaign director said, “You feeling OK? There’s something going on with you. Go in the bathroom and have some water.” So I’m drinking this water, and it’s dribbling down my chin. She thought I was having a stroke. So she rushed me to the emergency room at Mercy. They put me on an EKG, gave me a CAT scan. Then this woman comes up to me and she says—it sounded like it was in slow motion—“You have a brain tumor.” That was a Sunday. I had my surgery Wednesday.

When I first heard from the mayor, it was from a phone number I didn’t recognize. I said, “Who is this?” He said, “It’s me, the mayor.” And I was like, “Who is this really?” That’s when I got scared: If he’s reaching out, I must be about to die.

Let me tell you one cool thing that happened when I got sick: I got this big box of DVDs from George Lucas. Really great classic films. But I’m an insane-asylum Star Wars fan, and none of them were his. I’m like, What the hell?

I’ve never cared about being fat. I’ve been fat since I was a little girl. But during treatments, I got down to 138 and kinda liked being that thin. People would say, “But you look sick.” Y’all just jealous.

I kicked cancer in the ass, but my doctor will tell you I’m not cured. I get an MRI every two months.

I don’t think I’m obstreperous at all. I think I’m reasonable. But when you have people like Bruce Rauner who are dead set on destroying something because they believe they’re right, and all they’re trying to do is make money off people—I’m sorry, I have no place in my heart for that. I like Star Trek, right? He’s a frigging Ferengi.

My favorite thing is to go into schools for a union meeting. Because so many people have real issues that they want handled. And that’s our job. Solve for x, rearrange the equation. What Dorothy taught me.

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