For 56 years, she taught us literature and lasting life lessons

Lynn Stowers, who taught at Thomasville High School for more than five decades, retired in 2024. (Courtesy of Rebecca Ramsey Nicolay)

Credit: guest

Credit: guest

Lynn Stowers, who taught at Thomasville High School for more than five decades, retired in 2024. (Courtesy of Rebecca Ramsey Nicolay)

“That pool is my white whale,” my father says, walking in from trying to inflate a kiddie pool for his grandchildren to enjoy on Memorial Day. We suspect my mother found it in the discount bin at Big Lots because it’s got a hole.

Our spouses sit blank-faced, not understanding the reason behind the laughter that Dad’s comment provokes from me, my brother and sister. It’s the same reason my brother can recite the first chapter of “Moby Dick” from memory. My dad’s no scholar of American literature, but he knows how to make himself the Ahab of a joke because he took a class with legendary teacher Lynn Stowers 49 years ago. My sister is 19 years out from Mrs. Stowers’ class. My brother is 13, and I’m 17.

Laura Lilly Cotten

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

“What’s an example of a rite of passage?” Mrs. Stowers might ask on the first day of her “Huckleberry Finn” unit. For 56 years, an answer to that question for Thomasville High School juniors and seniors has been “passing Stowers.”

For 56 years, Thomasville High students haven’t taken American lit and AP English, they’ve taken Stowers and AP Stowers.

Check our transcripts.

After nearly six decades of teaching, Lynn Stowers entered a well-earned retirement at the end of this 2023-24 school year.

Ask any of her thousands of former students what we remember from her class, and we’ll likely all tell you about how much reading and writing it required, how we learned words like ignominious and phantasmagoric and metonymy. We’ll tell you about how many reading quizzes we failed and the first times we made A’s on her papers.

Please — take a moment to consider how much grading a teacher does over 56 school years.

We’ll tell you Stowers was tough, but we’ll also tell you she wasn’t just teaching us vocabulary and “Jeopardy!” questions. She was sharing wisdom.

In honor of her continued legacy, here are a few lessons she taught us:

1. “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait by which your worst may be inferred.” (“The Scarlet Letter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne)

OK, I have conflicting memories of Mrs. Stowers banging a fist on her podium while reading this quotation and all but denting her whiteboard while writing “be true” thrice in quick succession before letting her marker fall to the floor. Dropping the mic before that was cool. Whatever the means by which she pounded this theme, we’ll never forget her emphasis on character and integrity — a lesson made all the more relevant in our post-truth era.

2. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” (“Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Mrs. Stowers believed each of us possessed a bit of the divine. Our challenge, she taught us, was to listen for intuitive wisdom — that’s some powerful respect to show a teen.

3. “‘She would’ve been a good woman,’ said the Misfit, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’” (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor)

Mrs. Stowers told us that one of the most important and difficult lessons we could take into adulthood was to distinguish conscience (recognition of our community rules and expectations) from consciousness (personal recognition of right and wrong; one’s moral compass). And a little humor goes a long way, especially during dark times. In this example, a nasty old lady shows she didn’t have much kindness in her until a serial killer holds a gun to her head.

4. “All right then, I’ll go to hell.” (“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain)

Perhaps the ultimate example of consciousness beating out conscience in American literature. Huck says this as he decides he’d rather give up eternal happiness than give up Jim’s location to bounty hunters. I think of this as the “Greater love has no one but this, that he laid down his life for his friend” lesson from Stowers’ class.

5. “ … in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of a half-known life.” (“Moby Dick,” Herman Melville)

If each of us possesses a bit of the divine, each of us must cling to it, especially during difficult passage. She was equipping us well.

Bon voyage, Mrs. Stowers. And thank you.

Laura Lilly Cotten, a native of Thomasville, Georgia, is an owner of Thank You Books, an independent bookstore in Birmingham, Alabama.