Chicago Education Reform Equity Unions

Matt Farmer: The Unforgettable Karen Lewis

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Matt Farmer is a lawyer in Chicago and a public school parent. He is also a gifted singing cowboy. I first encountered him when he performed a mock trial of billionaire Penny Pritzker, the Hyatt heiress who served as President Obama’s Secretary of Commerce. The mock trial was conducted at a delegate meeting of the Chicago Teachers Union at the invitation of Karen Lewis.

Matt explained how he met Karen in this remembrance. He had written about public schools at the Huffington Post. He had heard about Karen but never met her. Out of the blue, he received this message from her:  “I am truly, madly deeply in love with your soul. May I buy you lunch early next year?” 

You don’t turn down an invitation like that! They became fast friends. She was, he writes, a force of nature.

This is how I met Karen. In the spring of 2010, I published The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining American Education. I traveled all over the country to talk about the book. Soon after publication, I spoke at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where I met Mike Klonsky, thanks to our mutual friend Deborah Meier. That fall, I had a speaking engagement in Detroit, then intended to fly to Los Angeles. I planned to change planes in Chicago. I reached out to Mike Klonsky and asked if he could arrange for me to meet Karen, who had just upset the union leadership and won the presidency. He did.

I spoke to Karen and said I would be changing planes in Chicago and would it be possible for us to meet for an hour. Karen said I had to change my connecting flight and arrange for a four-hour layover so we would have time to get to know each other. When I landed in Chicago, she and her husband John met me and drove me to an airport hotel, where we sat in an empty ballroom and traded life stories for hours. I brought her a copy of my book, but she had her own copy, covered with post-it’s and underlining. (The way to an author’s heart!)

I felt an instant kinship with this warm, funny, brilliant, brash, literate woman. As you grow older, it is unusual to develop close friendships. I knew from our first meeting that Karen would be my friend forever.

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