Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Next, we turn to a special installment of our weekly Brief But Spectacular series, featuring one our most popular profiles, Flossie Lewis.

Tonight, it is not so brief, and it includes the series creator, Steve Goldbloom.

Here's an excerpt of his documentary that will be screened next Wednesday in San Francisco about a former teacher who her students find to be pretty spectacular.

Flossie Lewis: Getting old is a state of mind. Now, I'm 91. I'm badly crippled. But I still think I'm 15.

Will this go viral?

Steve Goldbloom: This? We hope so.

Flossie Lewis: Accepting the fact that the body is going to go, but the personality doesn't have to go, and that thing which is the hardest to admit is that character doesn't have to go.

I'm Flossie Lewis. This is my Brief But Spectacular take on growing old.

Steve Goldbloom: Welcome to this special episode of Brief But Spectacular. I'm Steve Goldbloom.

The clip you just saw of Flossie Lewis first aired on "PBS NewsHour" in 2016. And, as she predicted, it did indeed go viral.

More than seven million viewers watched her take on growing old and living well, and Flossie was a little overwhelmed by all the attention. She called me and asked if she was expected to respond personally to each of the thousands of comments on Facebook. I assured her that she wasn't.

Flossie's video struck a chord with millions, but one of the responses really caught our attention. It came from author Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snicket, who wondered how we managed to track down his high school English teacher.

We soon heard from other Bay Area residents who passed through Flossie's classroom, and not just passed through, but who described the experience as having a profound effect on their education and their appreciation of poetry.

Emil Guillermo: She was the best English teacher.

Emily Murase: She demanded excellence.

Matt Hollis: She had this gravitas about her.

Daniel Handler: I think she has the ability to startle.

She has no time for your bull (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

Steve Goldbloom: So, based on popular demand we took a deeper dive with Flossie. We spent some time with her in her retirement home in Oakland.

And we even organized a reunion to take place inside her old classroom. We invited many of her former students, some of whom she hadn't seen in 40 years.

Flossie got right to work. She prepared a lecture for the occasion on whether or not Bob Dylan was worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

That's really all the context you need for what you're about to see.

Let's start with an introduction. Tell us where you were born.

Flossie Lewis: I think I was born in Bensonhurst, which is a section of Brooklyn.

I received my B.A. from Brooklyn College 1945. In the Jewish community of Brooklyn in the '40s, a girl was expected to be married, and the worst thing that could happen to her would be spinsterhood. And what was my fate? To be a spinster. So, I got on a Greyhound bus.

I went with a friend, and it took us five days and constipation to get to Berkeley.

Teaching was the one thing that a woman could do. I could command the attention of a class. I had a voice. I had that kind of personality that didn't seem teacherly, but was provocative.

Well, you couldn't be in charge of the weather. We should have done this yesterday.

Steve Goldbloom: I think this works well.

Flossie Lewis: Well, my philosophy is that everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Let's hope for the best.

Steve Goldbloom: OK.

Flossie Lewis: Now, Steve, are we on Ocean Avenue? I think we are.

Are we on Ocean Avenue, driver?

Man: Not yet. Not yet.

Flossie Lewis: Because we used to go down Ocean Avenue, and we'd be there by this time. So, when you go back, go back by Ocean Avenue, please.

Man: OK.

Matt Hollis: I think I was intimidated by her name. Flossie is a very unusual name.

Susan Freiwald: Petite woman who always wore very funky clothes.

Daniel Handler: She called me once when I was in college. I was very ill. I had just come out of the hospital. And she read to me from Kafka's diary. She said, "This will cheer you up."

I said, "But it didn't go well for Kafka, though, did it?" And she said, "No. No, it didn't."

Emil Guillermo: She changed the direction of my life. Because of Flossie, I became a writer. All throughout my life, Flossie has been there for me. Everyone else said no to me, and she said yes.

Flossie Lewis: My wheelchair is in place?

Steve Goldbloom: It's in place.

Flossie Lewis: This is the absolute (EXPLETIVE DELETED). That's all I can say. It ain't no fun, but I'm delighted to be here. And thank you for coming.

Oh. Oh, Jesus, how lovely. How lovely.

OK, ready?

The trivial task before us is to decide whether Bobby Dylan is worth the laureate for literature.

Defend his work, or open my eyes to something that I haven't seen. And we don't have to go up and down the row, but speak.

Emil Guillermo: What is wrong with Dylan, Flossie? I mean, he's just putting out the questions.

Flossie Lewis: So he makes us search?

Emil Guillermo: For some people.

Flossie Lewis: Rena, dear. You're on, baby.

Woman: How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man is a rhetorical question.

Flossie Lewis: Yes, I see what you're saying.

I will not dispute anything that I have heard. I know you love him. I happen not to love him, but that's not the point. He speaks for your generation.

How do we decide who represents poetry?

Honey, speak.

Man: Whether he's a poet laureate, the question for me is, compared to what?

Flossie Lewis: Put him next to someone that also merits this kind of consideration, and show me how he wins.

Man: We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us. No heat. Wonder why Christmas missed us. Birthdays was the worst days. Now we sip champagne when we thirsty.

I like that so much more for what it does for the English language. I personally am unequivocally opposed to Dylan being chosen as the Nobel laureate, but that doesn't mean that I'm opposed to the views that I have heard here.

That's what was wonderful about your classroom, Flossie, was, it wasn't just your voice. You would bring us all in.

Woman: I remember when you read us a sonnet from Shakespeare…

Flossie Lewis: Yes.

Woman: … and said, it's no good.

(LAUGHTER)

Woman: And — and that was amazing. That was amazing.

Flossie Lewis: Thank you for remembering.

Woman: I remember so clearly.

Man: I remember my first composition that I wrote for you. And you — your comment was, I'm concerned by how drab your verb are.

(LAUGHTER)

Woman: When I was here in high school and coming out, I was depressed. I was kind of lost. I was maybe suicidal. I tell people I have this English teacher who I think saved my life.

And I think you did. So, thank you, and I love you.

Matt Hollis: You really introduced me to poetry.

I have gone on to become an architect. And I have a really strong affinity for classical Greek architecture. You have made those buildings come to life for me and shown me that architecture can have poetry.

Thank you very much.

Flossie Lewis: OK, guys, the class is over, but I hope it will never be over. And I hope, even if the answers are blowing in the wind, that maybe having an answer that is too certain can destroy us also.

(APPLAUSE)

Flossie Lewis: Bye-bye, honey. Thank you. Thank you.

Woman: Bye-bye.

Flossie Lewis: Oh, the cab is here.

Steve Goldbloom: The cabbie is here. It's the same man.

Flossie Lewis: Tell him to go on Ocean Avenue.

Steve Goldbloom: Oh, boy.

You touched a lot of people, Flossie.

Flossie Lewis: A lot of people touched me. It's a two-way street. Imagine teaching those kids. He's going to go the way he wants to go. It ain't going to be Ocean Avenue. What the hell?

Judy Woodruff: What a gift.

Flossie, thank you.

And thank you, Steve Goldbloom, for bringing her back to us tonight.

And you can watch the entire original Flossie Brief But Spectacular online at PBS.org/NewsHour.