An octogenarian’s blunt advice for a new age.
Once a top English teacher at prestigious Lowell High School in San Francisco, Flossie Lewis could be excused for resting comfortably on her laurels in retirement. But that’s just not her style. A resident of the Piedmont Gardens senior living community in Oakland, Lewis continues to teach a weekly SAT prep class at Cal, the school where—at age 70—she went to get her Ph.D. in English. She also contributes cheeky essays to The Monthly on subjects like the ‘tude she gets from younger folks when she strolls Piedmont Avenue with her walker. Years ago, she even had a piece published in Playgirl, but that’s another story. For this month’s back-to-school issue, I thought it only fitting to have a front-line vet weigh in on the supposedly sorry state of public education in this age of No Child Left Behind. Not surprisingly, Lewis didn’t disappoint. She even managed to keep me in line, but that’s okay. As you can probably tell, I crave discipline.
Paul Kilduff: The average person thinks that education is going to hell in a handbasket. Is that your view of things? Are things that dire?
Flossie Lewis: I think the media is responsible for that point of view. I know there are problems. There are serious problems. I’m talking about the fact that so many teachers, both young and old, are getting pink slips, and one has to live in a constant state of anxiety. [But] I think a lot that goes on in the classroom is still good. Having said that, I think there’s much to be said against teaching to the test.
PK: Well, that’s pretty prevalent, isn’t it?
FL: Yes. A lot of teachers can teach to the test, but it wears them out. And I think one of the reasons it wears them out is that teaching to a test takes away the human and humane element. And it turns kids into robots who memorize without, really, a good reason for memorizing. For example, if you ask kids to memorize a bit of light verse or a more difficult thing, a poem, they may balk at it. They won’t see the immediate use for it. But the memorization will later—and consistently, I believe—enrich their lives. If you memorize something when you’re a kid, even like “Roses are red, violets are blue, a face like yours belongs in the zoo,” you’re still going to get a kick out of it. But [when] you memorize something that is a little more complicated, it stays with you and you love to recall it. And at a later time in your life, it means something to you. But things that go in and out of your head? I must say it’s a weird concept for learning.
PK: So what’s the solution? Do you have some grand plan to save our educational system?
PK: I heard this rumor that you’re working on some plan to save everybody from the tyranny of this.
FL: Really? Where did you hear this? You heard it from God? It came to you in a dream?
PK: A little bird told me.
FL: Oh, well, it must have been a nice wee little bird. No, I don’t have that. [But] I will tell you, Paul, that every week I go with a colleague to Tolman Hall at the University of California and we do an SAT prep, the two of us. She’s a little bit younger than I am, but we’re both past 65. And we both go every week and we do an SAT prep, but the way we do the SAT prep ask more from the kids than [that] they get ready to score high on an SAT. We’re teaching them, we hope, to read critically and to examine the way they read so that giving the right answer is far from a gamble. It’s because they know what they’re doing and enjoy what they’re doing. It’s not “How am I going to get through this?” but “This is fun.”
PK: I know you’re saying there’s too much emphasis on these tests. But at the same time, the bottom line is you could be a C student through high school or worse, but if you ace the SATs and get a 1600 you could be looking at going to Harvard or something.
FL: You can get 1600s and you have no guarantee that Harvard is going to take you.
PK: Well, okay, let’s not say Harvard, but you know what I mean. You’ll get into a good school if you do well on the SAT. I think a lot of kids know this.
FL: You hope, certainly, if you’re a California kid, you’ll make it either to the universities or certainly the state colleges. But I know that if you’re going to Ivy League schools, or even the less-than-Ivy-League schools, they look at what you have to say about yourself. In other words, the letter of application. They get so many.
PK: The extracurricular activities and, of course, whether or not your father built a wing to the library—that kind of helps, too, doesn’t it?
FL: Could I tell you something? What you describe works only to a certain extent. Even the Ivy League people are looking for kids who have interesting extracurricular activities, but who have overcome some real problems in their lives. And I’m speaking out of real experience. I know of one or two kids who made it to the Ivy League because they were quite honest about what they had to overcome. Usually it’s being raised by a single parent and a father who left the family behind.
PK: And I understand all that. I know they go out their way to provide for those types of students. But getting back to the whole SAT question, we all know that the system is set up so that if you do well on that test, that overcomes a lot of the ills of doing poorly (in school). It sounds like you’re saying kids today need to focus a little, but less, on these tests. But the problem is we’re expecting them to do well on these tests to get into these schools and further their lives and careers. So, should tests be taken less into consideration? I know there’s a movement to do that. What do you think? Should colleges de-emphasize SAT scores in their admission process?
FL: Paul, I’ve been on admission committees and the SAT scores are part of a whole. They’re not the whole thing.
PK: I didn’t say that. I said they’re pretty important. Aren’t they?
FL: They are pretty important but you’d be surprised by some of the other things that are taken into consideration. It may seem that I’m leaning over to the other side that says, well, if you’ve had a rough life, and if your father has deserted you, you don’t need such a high SAT score. That’s not what I’m saying. I admit that the competition is tremendous, that you do need a high SAT score. You don’t necessarily need a 1600. But you have to have more than the SAT. This is based on our experience. You need to be—not a bullshitter, but you need to be articulate enough to say what it is you want from a university education and why you have chosen a particular school.
PK: How about head of the cheerleading squad? Is that going to get you into Harvard? What do you think?
FL: Paul, no.
PK: Yearbook editor? That’s probably better.
FL: No, dear. Are you listening or do I have to scold you?
PK: I think it will make for a far more interesting interview if you scold me.
FL: Paul, I’ve been on these committees. I know. Forget the cheerleader. We’re happy that they have a sound mind and sound body, but what they look for is not “I deliver meals,” but “I’ve actually spent my summer working in a hospital helping out with the records.” Or “I’ve spent my summer working at Habitat [for Humanity].” Or “I’ve spent my summer actually helping to build houses in Mexico.”
PK: Looking back on your illustrious teaching career, what were your weak points as a teacher? And what were your strong points?
FL: Okay. I will tell you. My weak point as a teacher was that I thought I knew all the answers. And my strong point was that I was able to apologize.
PK: I’m sure you’ve heard this, and I think it is true: Teachers both in high school and in college that I had that I didn’t really like—those are the teachers and professors that I remember. And I still think back to some to the things that they taught me. I’m wondering, is that a problem in education today—that teachers oftentimes want to win a popularity contest with their students?
FL: They’re the very worst ones. They’re the very bad ones. Really. When I was at Lowell High School, the kids had the right to register to get into the class of the teacher they wanted most. The classes that filled up the soonest were, number one, the best teachers, those who could teach—and the teachers who gave the kids the easy A. And the smart kids, almost without exception, went for the teachers who knew how to teach. They knew it would be rough. There were several rough teachers and they might take the least of the rough, but they knew that there would be challenges. They knew they’d get something [out of it] and they knew in the long run they’d come out better for the experience. At the other extreme were the A-givers. The nothing-givers. And the kids who had nothing to offer went for the easy ones.
PK: There’s a documentary out, Waiting for Superman.
FL: Oh, I saw it.
PK: One of the points of the movie—and a lot of reformers of education want to see this happen—is merit-based pay for teachers. Ultimately the parents and the kids would know, “Hey, these are the teachers that are getting paid more because they’re good. I want the good teacher.” Wouldn’t you want to take a class from the good teacher instead of the teacher that’s not getting paid as much? How do you resolve the problem of rewarding the good teachers without creating this huge quagmire of people wanting only those teachers?
FL: You know, Paul, I find myself in a difficult situation because I’ve for a long time been acclaimed one of the top teachers. And you would think I would run around the hall saying “Oh, look, I’m the top teacher.” [But that] breeds a lot of hostility, a lot of poison. Because a lot of very good teachers aren’t performers. The popular teachers have a presence. They walk into a room and you know the teacher has entered. They look at the class and the class shuts up. [But] a lot of good teachers are not personality-plus. They suffer because the stars are stars. The teachers who are not the performers may honestly not get the recognition.
PK: My question was really about merit-based pay. I mean, you were a really good teacher. Should you have gotten paid more?
FL: Paul, shut up for a minute. How do I feel about merit-based pay? I think it has to be done in ways other than money. Say to a teacher, “Where would you like to take some of your kids? What would you like to do with them in the summertime?” The reward has to be something other than monetary.
PK: You were a teacher for a long, long, long time.
FL: Well, I’m ready for the coffin. What do I do about the photo, honey?
PK: That’ll be something the editors will figure out.
FL: Well, whatever they figure out I’ll do, okay? They can come into my room and I’ll pose in the nude for them.
For more Kilduff, go to thekilduff-file.blogspot.com.
Birthplace: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Astrological sign: Cancer
Idol: I South African novelist J.M. Coetzee.
What I Want To Do When I Grow Up: I’d like for The East Bay Monthly to put [together] all of the pieces that I’ve sent them and publish a little book called A Walker on Piedmont Avenue.