A 94-Year-Old English Teacher and Her Former Students Reunite in Their Old Classroom & Debate the Merits of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Bob Dylan’s New­ly-Released Nobel Lec­ture: A Med­i­ta­tion on Music, Lit­er­a­ture & Lyrics

Bob Dylan Reads From T.S. Eliot’s Great Mod­ernist Poem The Waste Land

“Tan­gled Up in Blue”: Deci­pher­ing a Bob Dylan Mas­ter­piece

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus: How to Teach Seri­ous Lit­er­a­ture with Light­weight Books

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Albert Camus’ Touch­ing Thank You Let­ter to His Ele­men­tary School Teacher

Come­di­an Ricky Ger­vais Tells a Seri­ous Sto­ry About How He Learned to Write Cre­ative­ly

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.

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