In Dante’s Inferno, the Roman guide, Virgil, escorts Dante deep down into the Earth through the Nine Circles of Hell. As they descend, we, the readers, savor Dante’s ironic and graphic descriptions of Gluttons, Flatterers, and Seducers, among the many other Sinners residing in Satan’s realm. In the Ninth Circle, the two travelers to this netherworld view the worst sinners of all—the Betrayers—of family, of country, of God.
At times Epicurean, Dante Alighieri emphasizes the sour for the reader to know the bitter. For example, the Stingy must grapple daily with the Greedy.
These literary foils were born of Dante’s life experience. They continue on today.
Ten years ago, I traveled to Florence, Italy, to participate in a seminar on The Inferno, organized by St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
I had not been a student in a number of years. I had forgotten how it felt.
Our Tutors were John Agresto, a Master Professor and author, and at that time, the President of St. John’s College . Joining him was a brilliant Italian scholar named Sergio, who held a Doctorate in Dante from Yale, among other scholarly accolades.
I would not be honest (and I certainly do not want to visit the Liar’s Circle) if I did not share how intimidated I felt upon entering the small classroom sitting atop Fiesole, formerly an Etruscan settlement overlooking Florence.
Dr. Agresto posed the opening question.
At least two minutes of thoughtful silence answered.
Finally, one of the men responded; the seminar warmed. In the next two hours, the interplay among tutors and students heated up.
Sergio asked a big question. The room seemed very hot. After being a patient listener for most of the morning, I raised my hand and offered a small answer. The tutor’s dark eyebrows rose in an arch, like the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno, and he smiled.
Signora, your observation takes us to the heart of the text.
At that moment, Sergio reminded me how students feel when called upon: Adrenaline infuses itself with Heartbeat.
In Fiesole, the discussion continued, but I left it.
My mind plunged to my own Circle of Hell, the one where Insensitive Teachers and Professors reside. As Virgil, Dante, and I sidestepped these Mean Spirits (they were Shrill and Glib, Clueless and Sarcastic), they belittled us, scared us, ignored us, and laughed at us. Dispirited, we fled.
Up from the depths of that Half Circle, I emerged and returned to the seminar, forever reminded of the Power of the Teacher.
For some students, being called upon is Their Hell.