On October 9, when Chicago Teachers Union vice president Jesse Sharkey stepped to a podium to announce that the fiery Karen Lewis was suffering from a serious illness (later revealed to be a brain tumor), his days as a behind-the-scenes policy wonk were officially over. Now the acting CTU president, Sharkey, 44, sat down with Chicago contributing writer Carol Felsenthal to discuss what lies ahead for the union—and for the city’s public schools. Read part one of the interview here.
You grew up in Maine. What was your childhood like?
I grew up on a dirt road in rural Maine. My father wasn’t in the picture. I was raised by a single mom, Lee Sharkey, who taught at a local elementary school. I was good writer. If you write well, it helps. I was a national Merit Scholar finalist and went on scholarship to Brown.
Why did you choose Brown?
I chose Brown because I was a political person. I believed in causes. I wanted to make the world a better place. Other people were interested in making money; I was interested in saving the world. I did fine academically, majored in modern American history.
One of my causes in college was the labor movement. After college I went to work for the steelworkers union in North Carolina. I felt like a character in Norma Rae, romantic for a while. I was an organizer, working 80 hours a week. But I became fairly disillusioned with labor and realized that I didn’t want to become a union bureaucrat. And yet here I am, ending up working for the CTU. Try as I might, I find myself administrating the union.
How did you end up in Chicago?
When I got my MAT [from Brown in 1996], I took a job teaching at a Providence public high school. During that time I met my wife. She decided to move to Chicago. The plan was for her to work in publishing and I would work for unions. She got a job as associate publisher for In These Times. Now she works for Haymarket Books.
I went to work at Chicago Vocational Career Academy, the sprawling high school you see from the Skyway. I was teaching what CPS calls social studies, which encompasses history, culture, geography, and economics. I stayed there for three years before transferring to Senn.
I’ve read that you had health problems in your first year teaching. What happened?
In my first year of teaching, I had a brain hemorrhage. I was seriously paralyzed on my left side. I was in the neurological ICU and had a 12 hour long brain surgery. The hemorrhage is called an AVM; it’s congenital and in the middle of the brain. Until it bleeds you don’t know you have it. I was teaching and suddenly felt like I had been hit in the back of the head hard and by a heavy object. I told my students, “I’ve got to go.” I dragged myself in the hall. A teacher across the hall saw me and got me to the hospital.
Do you have residual effects?
You should have seen how smart I was before that. I’m fine now, although I have some weakness in my left hand. I’m right handed.
Then you moved to Senn. What was that school like?
There were violent fights all the time. It has improved in the last 6 years, but I can tell you it wasn’t like teaching at Beverly Hills High. But I liked teaching in city schools—there’s something refreshing and direct and immediate. Kids have real problems and tell you about them. The human relations are intense. You never go home feeling dirty. You know that you are making a difference.
But it was hard, there were so many organizational challenges. The first year there were 52 false fire alarms. You couldn’t count on help from security. If there were some issue in class, if you called the office too much, they would think you were a bad teacher. It forced me to learn how to deal with these problems on my own.
How did you become involved with the teachers union?
It started in 2004. The school district announced that it was closing schools and opening charters. They were going to transform Senn into a military academy. I took what had been sort of misgivings about why schools were closing and found myself organizing weekly meetings of about 75 people. Most of them were in the anti-war movement, and ‘Save our neighborhood school from becoming a military school’ became a cause. I would go to hearings and speak up against all these school closings. Other people were speaking up, too, and that’s how people running the CTU now got to know each other.
Was that when you met Karen?
I knew Karen during that time. I wouldn’t say we were particularly close; I got to know Karen better a couple of years later. Senn had professional training at Lane Tech [where Karen was teaching]. People would gather to talk in Karen’s room. Karen was always a person that attracted people around her because she was so expressive and alive. Fun to talk with and argue and joke with.
Were you invited to Karen Lewis’s Bat Mitzvah?
Yes, it was wonderful. I’ve been to lots of other Bar and Bat Mitvahs and this one was the best ever. My mother was Jewish, but I did not have a Bar Mitzvah. We weren’t Jewish in the conventional sense, not like there was a synagogue nearby when you’re living on a dirt road in Maine. I know a smidgeon of Hebrew, and how to say blessings over bread and candles. My wife is from an observant Jewish family. Our sons know they’re Jewish but we’re not hugely religious. My mother in law says we’re the best Jews in the family.
Karen is a genius with languages. In her Torah reading she just got the tone right. She taught herself Hebrew; she had a tutor but her she did it on her own. We were just coming out of the strike, school closings, and it was a crazy period of time. On the side she was learning Hebrew. Sang, just belted it out, nothing like a pimply 13-year-old mumbling his Torah portion. It was gorgeous. She was performing it. After the lunch at the temple [Rodfei Zedek in Hyde Park], a few of us went over to her house. Her first husband had died quite young, and after his death, spirituality took role in her life.
What has been the worst day on the job at CTU so far?
The Wednesday that the story broke that she was in the hospital. I was with her family, her husband, her sister. Her dad is dead; her mom has health issues and couldn’t be there.
And the best day?
I don’t know. There are a lot of good days. OK, I think the best day was when the strike vote came in. [The CTU outfoxed Rahm, who had pushed that 75 percent of union members had to vote for the strike, thinking the CTU would never get that; instead they got 90 percent] People were standing and crying. There was an outpouring of sentiment and pride. We hadn’t struck in 25 years and we were going on strike.