In fiction the inspirational high-school English teacher is a cliché, despite (or indeed due to) the fact that so many of us have had at least one of them in real life. For generations of students who passed through San Francisco’s prestigious Lowell High School, that teacher was Flossie Lewis. Long after her retirement, she went surprisingly viral in a 2016 PBS interview clip about her thoughts on aging. It seemed she retained her power to inspire, not just for her more than seven million online viewers, but also for the PBS producers who later reunited her with her former students in the very same classroom where she once taught them.
You can see this reunion take place in the video above, which also includes Flossie telling her own story of having fled Brooklyn spinsterhood on a Greyhound bus headed west. “I could command the attention of a class,” she says of the source of her power as a teacher. “I had a voice. I had that kind of personality that did not seem teacherly, but was provocative.”
Onetime student Daniel Handler, better known as the novelist Lemony Snicket, credits Flossie with an “ability to startle.” Another, now an architect, remembers “gravitas” — and his having been “intimidated by her name. Flossie is a very unusual name.” Or at least it is today, its popularity (driven, it seems, by the Bobbsey Twins books) having peaked in the early 20th century.
Flossie is also representative of her generation in another way: not particularly caring for the music of Bob Dylan. Though she can’t have been thrilled with that guitar-playing (relative) youngster’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, she’s willing to hear her students out on the subject. “The trivial task before us is to decide whether Bobby Dylan is worth the laureate,” she declares to the group of Lowell alumni gathered in her old classroom. Now all middle-aged, her former students include Dylan defenders and Dylan deniers alike, but what unites them are their undimmed memories of their teacher’s mixture of rigor, compassion, and sheer eccentricity. As one of them recalls, “You read us a sonnet from Shakespeare and said, ‘It’s no good.’” Whatever his generational relevance, the poet from Hibbing may never have stood a chance.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.