Flossie Lewis uses a walker to get around these days, but she’ll still find a way to leave you in the dust.
Try to pay the 87-year-old writer and teacher a compliment by saying her recent short story published in the East Bay Monthly is sweet, and she’ll answer, “Oh, sure it’s sweet. Marshmallows are sweet.” Things are no different if you call and get her answering machine. “You’ve reached Flossie,” her voice says dryly. “You sleuth, you.”
Perched on a couch in a sunny social room at Piedmont Gardens, the East Bay residential facility where she’s lived for the past two years, the petite, curly-haired Lewis appears to be the mayor of the place. Not so, she says: “Poet laureate.” She’s also a mother, grandmother, published author and longtime teacher. On her current teaching schedule is a weekly memoir-writing class at Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. “It’s been a lot of fun,” Lewis says.
Of course, this is a woman who feels at home in classrooms. She’s earned more degrees than you can count on one hand (including her most recent, a Ph.D. in English from U.C. Berkeley, when she was 73) and enjoyed a teaching career that spans six decades, including 38 years as an award-winning English teacher with the San Francisco Unified School District, at Lowell and Lincoln high schools.
She’s seen quite a bit. There were the years she taught at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont. “Oh, yes, I was there when Helen Keller came to dedicate the building [in 1950],” she mentions casually. She taught at Cal throughout the anti-war and free speech movements. “Mario Savio was a very good, very humble man,” she says wistfully — just someone remembering an old friend.
Born in 1925 in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst, then a Jewish and Italian neighborhood, Florence Lewis was the child of Jewish Eastern European immigrants. “Russia, Poland, the whole shtetl thing,” as she puts it. She spent summers at the Coney Island beach and boardwalk, where she remembers eating her first crab legs and clams at 8 years old. “After that, I grew up eating traif as often as I could!” she remembers. “It was like a seduction.”
Lewis always loved literature and writing. She attended Brooklyn College, taking classes that would allow her to become a teacher — one of the limited options for women at that time, she recalls.
“This was at the end of World War II,” she says. “What could a Jewish girl do before someone proposed to her? She could be a teacher or a nurse. You had to be outrageously courageous, even if you were brilliant, to say ‘I’m not interested in getting married, I want to have a career. I want to be a doctor, or a lawyer.’
“I had friends who were very interesting women, but that was the imperative for most of my generation — you had to be married, and then you could attempt something else. First you had to have that ‘Mrs.’ in front. Otherwise, you were nothing,” she says.
She passed the written exam necessary to become a New York City high school English teacher but says she failed the speech test because of her Brooklyn accent.
“Now it seems meshuggah, but back then that’s how it was — if you slipped and said ‘Long Island’ or ‘chocolate’ or ‘oranges’ wrong, that speech prevented you from delivering standard Midwestern English lessons in schools,” she says.
“It was a kind of anti-Semitism, or we could say anti-immigrant attitude. It was the same with a lot of jobs. You couldn’t get a job in a bank if you talked like that! Even if you could speak Manhattanese, they’d know you were Jewish pretty soon. You’d give it away by gesture, or if you didn’t, they’d ask in the interview, ‘What church do you belong to?’ ”
Lewis was accepted to U.C. Berkeley for graduate school and, at 23, took a Greyhound bus cross-country. “There was something in me that rebelled. I knew my stuff. I thought, I’ll just find another place,” she says. “Besides, no one had proposed to me yet.” The tuition for a year of classes in 1946 was $75, she remembers. She’s been in California ever since.
Her first teaching jobs were in what’s now Union City and another district outside Fresno. In 1949 she moved to Berkeley because “I was getting married, thank God.” Her husband, Jerry, was a pianist and string bass player with the San Francisco Symphony and then the East Bay Symphony. Lewis began teaching at Lincoln High School and would come home to the East Bay in the evenings and “fall asleep listening to him play piano,” she remembers. The couple had a son, now living in Colorado.
At Lowell, Lewis was well respected — if not the easiest teacher in the world. “Oh, I was hell on wheels,” she says. “You just did not get to Lewis’ class late! Not because I would shut the door on you, but because I’d humiliate you. Turns out you can’t do that with adults.”
By the time she started working toward her master’s degree at the University of San Francisco — all while teaching full time — she was already getting her short fiction and essays published in education journals and literature reviews, including one “big hit” in Playgirl magazine and another in Encounter, a respected U.K. publication. She’s also sitting on two unpublished novels.
In 1994, when Jerry died, Lewis says her writing “dried up.” It’s only been recently that she’s started writing freely again — much to the delight of her friends and family (which includes nephew Achi Ben Shalom, the Bay Area choral leader and musician, who drops by the Gardens on occasion to lead seders and sing-alongs). The East Bay Monthly regularly publishes her stories and columns, and friends tell her whenever a publication is having a writing contest. The Crest, Piedmont Gardens’ publication, carves out a space for her in each issue to write whatever she wants; a sign in the elevator announces an upcoming “Poetry Potpourri,” in which Lewis and another resident will lead a group in sharing their writing.
In her spare time, she walks a lot — she especially enjoys Piedmont Avenue. She’s also begun attending synagogue regularly for the first time in her life after taking a liking to Rabbi David Cooper at Kehilla.
But nothing brings Lewis more pleasure than someone telling her they read something she wrote and could hear her voice in it. “Writing gives me absolute joy,” she says, adding that she relishes first drafts — with their loose, make-it-up-as-you-go-along spirit — more than anything. “Perfection is in the eye of the beholder.”