The Half Circle of Hell

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.

Eighteen men.
Three women.
Two tutors.

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.

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About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Writing and Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Half Circle of Hell

  1. nutuba says:

    Well stated. Many students hate being called upon in class, but the astute teacher can see into the eyes of the students and know who is willing to answer and who is too terrified … the caring teacher can encourage the fearful students by asking questions to which those students can answer correctly, and then calling on those students, thus increasing confidence.

    It’s all about encouraging and enabling … the teacher who tears down and crushes the student will be surpassed by a brilliant student (because it becomes a competition). The teacher who encourages and enables the student to learn will be able to rise up with that brilliant student, learning from him just as the student is learning from the teacher.

    I am enjoying reading your postings.

  2. Douglas says:

    Why do I not remember my teachers? That’s not exactly true. I remember a number of them. I only recall a couple of names. The ones I remember come to mind every so often; the history teacher who taught us/me to see it context of the time and also relate to the context of our time, the English teacher who introduced me to Shakespeare and also stood her ground against my refusal to do homework, and the math teacher who cleverly kept me interested by having me tutor/mentor classmates who were struggling to grasp the concepts in algebra. These were the best of way too many who failed to truly reach me. I suspect you would have been one I remembered had I been your student.

  3. lakeviewer says:

    You took me back to Italy with this one, where I spent my childhood and studied Dante back in the seventh grade. Many of my professors were arrogant and superior, finding ways to keep us humble and small. Fortunately, in America, I experienced warm and gentle souls.

    Dante, like Shakespeare, teaches many life lessons and pokes fun at his contemporaries.

    Thank you for the life lessons you teach, and the literature analogies you connect. Your blog is intelligent and fun.

  4. twelvekindsofcrazy says:

    This post reminded me of a favorite Mark Twain quote, just wanted to share it with you-
    “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great ones make you feel that you too, can become great.”

  5. Füsun Atalay says:

    Thank you for visiting my blog, and for your comments. I enjoyed your writing and will be returning often.

    I’d like to be more succinct in my writing, but I get caught up in words far too often.

    Best wishes,
    Füsun Atalay

  6. Calidore says:

    That is how I have always felt as a student, until I reached my first English class in college. I don’t think strict is the correct discription of my professor, as it makes him appear more parental than an educator. But I learned how to own my ideas and not be afraid of them.

  7. tsblock says:

    Great description of how it feels to be a successful student. I think we could be more like teachers in our own lives with our family, friends, and colleagues. We should try to encourage each others ideas and imagination, rather than throw them under a microscope and judge them against our own thoughts and feelings. Everyday conversation could be so much more rich, in my opinion.

    Thanks, great post!

  8. Aika says:

    This is just so timely for me. I have a professor now who scares the hell out of me because she establishes she knows better and that really intimidates me. At the same time it reminds me of my favorite Literature teacher, who never fails to inspire us everytime we leave his class. After every discussion, I just want to study more and that’s really something. He taught Literary Criticism at that time and he made it sound like it was the best thing in the world. He was very encouraging.

    Thank you for this post. I look forward to more great writing! 🙂

  9. andreaskluth says:

    This anecdote reminds me of what my Ashtanga Yoga teacher once told me about the etymological origins of the word “guru”, ie teacher. Gu and ru, he says, come from light the candle. So the teacher was supposed to light your candle, thereby setting you free. If the teacher tries to cast a spell of power or dependency over you, he is not lighting your candle, and cannot be called guru.

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