Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Dear Students: On the Non-reading Problem

Scenario One
Student: (Stomps around. Rolls eyes.)  I totally failed that quiz!!  And I read!!!!  Ridiculous—how is anyone supposed to remember those little facts?
Friend: Like the fact that the main character died and it took two long paragraphs to describe it?
Student: PLEASE.  That was just because I got home late and was tired at that point.  
Friend: But you were on the groupchat all night.
Student: The thing is, I actually read!! 
Friend: You read sparknotes.
Student: But I actually read them.  Same thing.

Scenario Two
Ms. Gavin: Okay, clear off your desks.  Reading quiz.
Student: UUGHHMPPH!  Of COURSE!  The ONE NIGHT I didn’t read!
Friend: You said that yesterday.
Student: (Mutters and complains throughout quiz. Shields eyes with hand on forehead, tries to read neighbor’s paper, can’t see the writing. Becomes more enraged.)  Is this a JOKE?  How’re we seriously supposed to know all of this and know the deeper meaning?  We have to know QUOTES?  Are we seriously expected to remember the characters and details from the book?!
Ms. Gavin: Yes. 

Scenario Three
Student: I read, but I got confused.  I didn’t understand it.  It was confusing.
Ms. Gavin: What was confusing?  What part?
Student: I can’t remember exactly.  Just the whole thing.  (Avoids eye contact and types on phone.)


Dear Students,

Every student and teacher in the classroom is brought down by this: the non-reading problem.  We all know the one, even if it isn’t caused by every person.  It varies from student to student.  Maybe it’s skimming, missing important points and forgetting immediately.  At least that’s honest, as opposed to consulting poorly-written summaries.  Don’t fall into this damaging habit.  It’s nothing to be proud of. 

A lot of us have been engaged in an elaborate game of fakery: You come in pretending to have read, and I pretend not to notice.  It’s exhausting.  It’s far more important to your intellectual and innermost spiritual self to live genuinely.  Imagine coming to school without a pit in your stomach caused by knowing you haven’t done what you were supposed to.  Whether or not there’s a reading quiz, you wonder if your teacher knows (she does).  Suppose you truly earned every point.   Envision comprehending the value of literacy, and embracing it.  Imagine the moment when you catch yourself...enjoying reading.  It's magical.

You’ll have to read here, and read closely.  The worst thing to do is take the shortcuts, then tell yourself that you’ll actually do reading “when it counts.”  The problem with that is, when you need those reading skills, they just won’t be there.  S@#%notes, for example, are written at a fifth-grade reading level.  The harsh truth: if you have been relying on them and never reading actual books, then that’s where your reading level is, and it’s no wonder if you then struggle with more challenging texts.   The best thing is to be honest.  Resist the allure of the glowing screen which promises easy, quick answers.  Know that the quick, easy answers provide data, but not wisdom.  Now is the time.  Carefully assess your skill and your effort.  I am here to help you do just that.  We will get there.

Most likely, your schedule is packed, but true literacy is a skill that just cannot be falsified in the world beyond.  Everybody knows a faker.  This year, you are expected to work hard and honestly on improving your reading, writing, and critical thinking skills.  Don’t let yourself graduate without them.  Don’t kid yourself—you will need them no matter what you pursue in life. 

CBS News reports:

        Many people fresh out of college who succeeded in landing work in recent years may need to face a painful truth -- their employers often don't think they're ready for the job.
        According to a survey released today by PayScale, which provides data on salaries, and executive development firm Future Workplace, nearly 90 percent of all recent college graduates considered themselves well prepared for their jobs. Unfortunately for young employees, only half of hiring managers shared that opinion.
        More than half of all companies (60 percent) said new grads lacked critical thinking skills and attention to detail (56 percent), while 44 percent found fault with their writing proficiency, and 39 percent were critical of their public speaking ability.

Again, I know this doesn’t apply to everyone.  Maybe you’re frustrated because you do the work and no one else does.  The day reading is due, you dread an awkward, dull class, yearn for a good conversation, and brace yourself for being pestered by people asking you to work with (meaning for) them.  Maybe you die a little on the inside when the first thing a group member asks is, “Did you read?”  I see you.  Hello and welcome.  Because of course you need to read.  It’s no longer a question.

I know that I’m in a profession that in many ways has become antiquated; what I ask you to do every day may as well be the equivalent of having you do algebra on an abacus.  While I have grown more grey of late, I'm certainly no Gandalf, here to bar your way as I thunder, "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!"  You hear your teachers emphasize the importance of reading, but so little in your world validates this claim.  The humanities aren’t considered lucrative, high-profiled, or powerful.  But they are real, they are profound, and they provide us with universal truths that are eternal.  There's such joy and wonder waiting for you.

You each possess the potential to be epic.  Together, we link arms and dive into the nihilistic abyss of modernity, returning with the elixir of life.  We touch eternity.  It is up to us to carry the fire.  We are the knights of the old order.  

There are many reasons why students today just don’t read the way they used to.  We will talk about this throughout the year; I want to hear from you about this as well.  Meanwhile, just be real.  Give up any counterfeit swindles you may be pulling on yourself and others about your efforts and literacy.  Authenticity takes work.  I will help you and work incredibly hard alongside you.  You will improve.  It will be liberating.

To succeed:
·         Write down what you do understand about the chapter.
·         Go beyond plot—what is the author trying to show about life, society, or human nature?  What   mood is he or she trying to create?  What does the author what you to think about?
·         Jot down questions you have.  Be specific; include page numbers.
·         Participate in class discussions.  You are responsible for making your life interesting.
·         Come see me in S112 during homeroom or after school (except Wednesdays).  Bring your notes and questions.
·         Write to me at  No e-mail attachments please.


Common Problems and Solutions

1. “I can’t remember the characters’ names or plot details.”
Write them down as you read.  Include your personal impressions—force yourself to have opinions on the characters based on what they say, do, wear, eat, etc.  Brainstorm about why the plot or language is significant to the author’s purpose. Refer to your notes and add to them as you read (or after).  Review them in the morning to refresh your memory for class discussions and quizzes.  Hold onto them to help review for larger tests.  If you come in for extra help, have your notes in hand so I can help you, see where you may be getting lost, and follow your train of thought.

2. “I can’t focus.” 
Distraction=the millennium.  Look, a bunny!  We all struggle to remain focused.  Don’t save your reading for right before bed.  Block out a chunk of time.  Read in a quiet, comfortable place, free from screens, music, noise, or any other distractions.  Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t focus right away; it takes a while to get into the reading groove.  Concentration is a muscle that requires exercise to improve. 

3. “I read it but I don’t get it.  It doesn’t sink in."
Understand that nobody reading something for the first time understands everything.  No one. That's natural.  Be comfortable with not knowing, and trust that you’re in good hands with the author: it will all come together.  Have you ever been in the movie theatre, and as soon as the film starts, someone in the audience starts sharing his or her confusion loudly?  “WHO’S THAT?!  IS THAT THE GUY??  WHERE IS HE GOING??!  WHAT'S IN THAT PACKAGE HE’S CARRYING?!”  You, however, sit there exasperated, because you know that you’re not supposed to understand everything about the story in the first fifteen minutes or so.  You trust that it’s going somewhere.  If you ever see the movie more than once, you pick up on so much more.  You accept it.  Reading is the same way.  Embrace the unknowing; translate your confusion into intrigue. 
I understand that reading (if done well) is a complex cognitive process that makes all sorts of demands on your imagination, your intellect, and your concentration.  If youre not getting it, try this; I swear this helps.  Download a good version of the audiobook, and read along as you listen. works with an account, and sometimes audiobooks are free on youtube—just make sure you get a version that sounds interesting, not someone reading in a mumbled monotone.  We human beings are never too old to be read to.  Reading along while you listen to a professional actor performing the lines brings text to life.  Sometimes there is even music, or delightfully cheesy sound effects.  Reading along also targets two intelligences at the same time: audio and visual.  When you read and hear an actor perform simultaneously, your eyes won’t skim to the bottom of the page; you’re kept on pace with the audio.  You’re activating your brain, and will be more likely to remember what you read long-term.

Know that I don’t believe everything we hear in the media about “kids these days,” and I pray that you are not trapped by the notions that others have of you.  Each of you is capable of greatness that you can’t possibly imagine.  I will push you to do more than just get by.  No hiding. 


Ms. Gavin

Sunday, April 23, 2017

'Tis Still Common: On Education Reform

Three years ago I was asked what I thought about the Common Core curriculum, and I wrote a reply.  Now, a few exams in, and having changed my mind about a few things, here are some thoughts.
Education is supposed to inspire children to imagine, think creatively, discover their strengths, and give them skills to solve problems. In many ways, the state's new emphasis on testing undermines these goals.  The Common Core English curriculum's focus is now "informational texts," that is, nonfiction that may or may not be literary.  Its target is to have students read for information, not for subtleties in language, themes, or subtext.  

I have had many conversations with my students about “sparknote-ization” of reading, which trains students to believe that we read merely to collect facts and that story is merely about plot. The literary critic Christopher Clausen has said that all of literature attempts to answer, either directly or indirectly, two questions: 1. What kind of world is this? And 2. How shall we live in it?   The Common Core’s two questions? 1. What does it say in line 7 about carbon emissions (or some other topic not related to the humanities), and 2. How many points will my grade go down if I can't come up with a counter-argument incorporating line 2?

The first sample ELA Regents essay provided by New York State presented nine passages for the students to analyze. Only two of the samples provided were literary (one poem and one prose excerpt). The most recent Regents exam, thankfully, provided a bit of respite from  scientific texts, legal documents, and graphs, with the inclusion of a story and a question about a literary device.  The major essay itself, however, is still almost identical to the Social Studies DBQ (document-based question), where students construct an argument based on current event articles unrelated to literature.  AP Literature scores have gone down over the past two years.  (Last year, College Board exec Trevor Packer tweeted, "I am sorry to report that the AP Literature exam scores this year are the lowest they have been in decades.")  I'm skeptical when it comes to tests, but the AP Lit test is a good test.  More concerning, however, a curriculum based primarily on the mechanics of reading for facts takes away the very element which makes stories worthwhile: there's no wonder, nor any lessons which tell humans how to live, interact, achieve their goals, use language carefully, listen closely and with humility, or deal with suffering.

The less we emphasize the humanities as a culture, the more shocking become the outbreaks
of bullying in what has become a national epidemic. The battle cry for uniformity has necessitated the concrete as the common denominator.  We have prioritized research, argument, and corporeal processes over esoteric, epic, lyrical thinking.  Is it any wonder that when we take away literature, which teaches children empathy, compassion, and imagination, we must then replace it with anti-bullying assemblies and metal detectors?  We can't complain about the younger generation's lack of interpersonal and critical skills when we strip them of wonder, removing vehicles for self-reflection and social maturity. 

The English DBQ essay requires students to agree or disagree with a claim based on several non-fiction articles.  Make no mistake about it, making a claim and defending it with evidence is a valid undertaking, an academic and life skill whose value cannot be overstated.  In its current iteration, however, the problem with this format is its overexposure.  Nudging aside writing to learn, embracing the complexities of story, and listening closely to a poet or novelist's message, its over-saturation in the curriculum has lead to some troubling habits of mind in our students.  Since implementing the Common Core (third year now), students are  more befuddled than ever during writing sessions or discussions exploring a topic in literature: you want to know what we think? Just tell us what the answer is.  What's the formula for the essay?  What do you want me to write?  I will give you what you want.  Students are so concerned about the "right" answer that they don’t have time to enjoy the process of learning or to exercise their own judgments.

And why wouldn’t students and their families be concerned? There are so many demands on their time: SATs, PSATs, ACTs, college admissions, testing in every subject, sports, activities, and homework.  I often fret about student tension and depression having escalated to alarming heights.  With over-packed schedules and the emphasis on the "right" interpretation/school/career, it's no wonder that students sit anxiously in class, stymied, with their pens poised over their desks, unable to commit to placing the first words on paper.  Because in their world of exams, resume building, high stakes  scores, and academic rankings, they might be...wrong.  In the classroom, emphasizing uniformity in argument structure and pedagogy belies the goal of students finding their own voice and arriving at their own macroconclusions.   

Students often freeze when they are asked what they think, and it isn't because they are lazy slobs or cellphone-zombie burnouts.  Many of them actually have a genuine desire to do well in something that simply provides no joy.  Young, enthusiastic educators new to teaching often feel the same way; they are so eager to please, but feel stuck: their students must pass these exams.  They must learn the formula!  To the most well-meaning of teachers and students, finding a voice and thinking critically are luxuries that the English Common Core cannot afford.

Our emphasis on the article-based argumentative essay (claim, evidence, counter argument) from news articles has edged out close reading and interpretation of dense, rich literary passages. With the over-saturation of one type of essay, meaning gets boiled down to a yes-no-maybe answer devoid of nuance.  Well-intentioned educators who may rejoice, "Now students can't argue about what a book means!" run the risk, not only of discouraging their students from speaking freely, but also of extinguishing the ineffable moments in a classroom that make student minds come alive.  

We cannot compress learning into two dimensions and then complain that student work lacks depth.  An English teacher with a master’s thesis in Romanticism may have inspired students in the past with his specialized passion for a wild-eyed, disheveled Byron, but now he must curb his fervor in order to stay lockstep with what someone else has decided. After all, his colleague whose thesis was on modern American poetry does the same.  Vanishing is the close examination of language with its perplexing subtleties and connotations.  The curriculum gets boiled down to a common denominator gleaned from the basics of reading short articles for information. 

The Common Core is indeed common, but in the wrong ways.  Of course concrete data assists our instruction. Of course we need to be forever searching for meaningful methods that work.  Do not suppose that I am suggesting that finding answers is merely a matter of frolicking in fields barefoot while making daisy chains and braiding each others' hair.  After all, a text does not always mean what we want it to mean.  We need methods that acknowledge that, to life's most important questions, there are many right answers, and none of them are simple.  Instead of weathering the storm by taking cover under the one argumentative essay based on articles unrelated to English, let's be a little more daring.  Let's try new methods to keep up with our students' changing world. Perhaps we can tune into technology in ways that will inspire students to go beyond the bare minimum of thought and expression to become articulate, thoughtful individuals.  Let's not give up on expecting our students to enjoy reading or explore ideas to which there isn't one concrete answer.  

Should schools maintain a high level of rigor? Absolutely. (And if I can ever strike the perfect balance of rigor without panic, you'll be the first to know.)  Yet we need a curriculum created by teachers and communities who love their content and who love the classroom, not one handed down to us from a decentralized committee of experts who possibly materialized from a realm of theory.  The Common Core worships at the altar of “all on the same page,” but teachers never had a say in what book that page should come from.   Using innovative research and data to improve student learning need not require a love affair with lock-step uniformity.  Reading massive amounts of DBQ essays based on informational articles not related to their field, teachers now compile mounds of paperwork and data charts on students not their own.  In the layers of bureaucracy, it is the child who gets lost in a shuffle of paperwork. 

If you understood the allusion to Hamlet in the title of this post, thank your wealth of knowledge about stories and literature, for you speak the human language of story.  You may recall Hamlet's disgust when his mother, with good intentions, tries to console her son about the loss of his beloved father by telling him that death is a common experience.  Hamlet, repulsed by his mother's hasty remarriage to his uncle, disdainfully agrees, "Aye, madam, 'tis common."  If you appreciate this allusion to an imaginative experience in the realm of story, you understand this post's title.  You are connected, even briefly, to a mythical world shared and understood by others in one shining, communal moment.  You are able to connect Hamlet's comment to the universals of the human experience.  You are able to nod and, perhaps, use the phrase when you inevitably encounter circumstances that call for it in the future.  You are able to do these things that the current generation cannot.


Mother's-loss and Motherless Dante

I spend a lot of time thinking about mothers; my first blog post several years ago was about Michelagelo's Pieta in St. Peter'sI marvel at the wordless clinging unique to mothers and infants, as in Mary Cassat's painting. I listen to the way teenagers argue with their mothers in dressing rooms, and I wonder what it would have been like had my mother's fatal cancer not been misdiagnosed in 1975.

Dante Alighieri also lost his mother at a young age.  A mother’s sublime strength and love must have resonated with him; in the second canto of Inferno he learns of the loving chain of maternal women who have interceded on Dante’s behalf in Heaven, giving birth to his journey to salvation.  In the case of Mary, Lucy and Beatrice, Dante’s eternity is owed to their maternity.  Their love is perfect in that it is complete and salvific, but Dante understands that a mother’s infinite propensity to love is commensurate with the loss she feels in losing a child.  In Purgatorio canto ten, for example, the Pilgrim gazes at the frieze of Emperor Trajan’s encounter with the pleading widow.  A nameless character whose whole identity in the poem has become synonymous with her loss, the poor woman has not only lost her husband, but also her son.  Grief has made her so desperate that she begs the mighty emperor (insistently!) to avenge her son’s death, not taking no for an answer and ultimately softening Trajan’s will.  Despite Trajan’s urgent tending to the empire’s business, he is able to recognize the woman’s catastrophic bereavement; his recognition of her anguish and pitiful social position simultaneously humanizes him and makes him a godly example.

Dante himself is reminded of maternal grief at a seemingly incongruous moment: in the Earthly Paradise, where he has just been told that he is his own master, in a sense having received the driver’s license to cruise around in the Garden unsupervised and has ostensibly outgrown his previous parental figure.  Purgatorio’s canto twenty-eight alludes to the myth of Proserpina, but in terms of a mother’s loss, when Dante says to Matelda, “You put me in mind of where and what / Proserpina was, in the time when her mother lost / her and she the spring” (lines 49-51).  Even the image of ethereal, pre-lapsarian Matelda in the beautiful Garden harkens back somehow to a woman’s heartache over her dearly departed child.  Because Eden is a place of birth and new life, the allusion to a mythical mother who lost her child seems peculiar.  The Proserpina myth reminds us that even the change of seasons, like Christianity itself, is contingent upon a mother’s loss of her child.  It might not be so unusual to be in Eden and to be reminded of loss, but perhaps the instinctive associations among new life, rebirth and mother loss speak to Dante’s own experience (more on that later).  The connection to a mother is so powerful that the souls of Paradiso canto fourteen

     eagerly well showed their desire for their dead bodies
                             perhaps not for themselves alone, but for their
mamas, for their fathers, and for the others who were dear 
before they became sempiternal flames. (62-5)

The mothers are the first filial connections Dante presents, and he uses the childlike and personalized endearment mamme as opposed to the more formal padri.  This is not the first time that Amme, mamme, and fiamme occur in the poem, but together here they seem to form a trinity of concerns for Dante, perhaps echoed in the structure of the Commedia itself: the word of God, the mother, and the flame.

In the prologue to the Decameron, Boccaccio catalogues the horrors of the plague, but writes that the worst monstrosity of all is the fact that some mothers abandoned their own children.  In canto twenty-six, one sign of Ulysses’ cold unscrupulousness is that he has disregarded his obligations to his family.  The lowest circle of hell shivers with further extremities of this coldness, where the climate is a rigid, icy, motherless place.  Engaged in cannibalism, Lucifer and the masculine shades reside at the center of the earth, as far removed from the sun and love as one can possibly be, dreadfully estranged from the warmth of Paradiso’s final canto.

Statius’ lecture on the Miracle of Life in Purgatorio twenty-five places the female as the passive agent; the vessel is “the one disposed / to undergo” (line 46).  A woman undergoes pregnancy, labor, and her child’s eventual departure from her home, yet Dante is not merely depicting mothers as women doomed to love and lose.  Instead of framing Dante’s attitude as one of simplistic stereotype, I prefer to think of Dante as highly attuned to the poignant depths of motherhood: the importance of its inexpressible love and the unfathomable grief of a mother’s loss. We are reminded of the universality of motherhood when we see St. Anne in Paradiso canto thirty-two smiling as she gazes at her daughter, the Virgin Mary.  In the same canto, Bernard prays to Mary and appeals to the sacredness of her womb where “Love kindled itself / again, whose warmth in the eternal peace, has / caused the germinating of this flower” (7-9).   Statius’ depiction of a female egg as a passive vessel is rounded out with Bernard’s prayer to the womb as a causal agent.  A mother’s bond with her child is so strong that, in the case of St. Dominic’s mother in Paradiso canto twelve, she is able to recognize his sainthood in vitro and act accordingly.  This is magical indeed.   

It’s hard to think about Dante’s wonder regarding maternal figures in his Commedia without thinking of the personal losses he suffered in his lifetime.  Bill Stephany has pointed out Paradiso canto ten’s tercet from St. Thomas of Aquinas as perhaps echoing the orphan’s anxiety: “Now if you train the eye of your mind from / light to light after my praisings, you still thirst to / know the eighth light” (lines 121-123).  Immediately after the lines above, Aquinas alludes to Boethius, who, coincidentally, is not only an exile like Dante, but also an orphan by the age of seven. 

Dante wrote the poem because he was lost in his yearning and isolation; it’s possible that what he is yearning for is solely to know God.  Given his circumstances, however, of personal loss, including his mother—the life-giving everything to a child of six—at such an early age, it could be that he is longing to return to that something that he cannot name, the maternal Eden that every child must leave ultimately.  Within the poem, it would be difficult to isolate the tragedies Dante suffered to those specifically related to the early loss of his mother, and I don’t want to force an interpretation that isn’t there; instead of asserting that there is a motherless hunger which haunts Dante throughout the poem, I enjoy reflecting on that possibility. 

Certain moments of a nameless craving assault Dante on his journey that are not specifically named as desires to know God; for example, in the Earthly Paradise, after Dante’s allusion to Proserpina, Beatrice remarks to Matelda, “Perhaps a greater care, which / often robs the memory, has darkened the eyes / of his mind” (Purgatorio 33, 124-6).   Because her remark leads to the enhancement of Dante’s memories of virtue by drinking from the waters of Eunoe, this nameless care may have nothing to do with loss beyond Dante’s control.  In another instance in Purgatorio, Dante reflects on something he is mourning that remains unidentified.  When he hears the Beatitude, “Qui lugenti…” (line 50), “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be consoled,” we can gather that his head is still down from the discouragement about the siren, for Virgil asks him, “What is the matter, that you are staring at the / ground?” (lines 52-3).  Dante has just been misled by his dream of the siren who, after receiving the gaze makeover, turns into a beautiful woman before being exposed for the ghastly creature she is.  It is natural that he would be troubled by his dream, but what effect does the Beatitude have on his meditation?  Followed by Virgil’s observation about Dante’s lowered head, the Beatitude here seems ambiguously placed.  Has his transforming gaze of Beatrice, the siren, Francesca, and an ideal of a mother led him only to earthly cares?  I suspect it is too fanciful to read this moment as Dante’s reflection on the loss of his mother. I’m sorry to have wasted this paragraph but I do have more fruitful leads. 

In certain instances, when Dante needs to demonstrate the most powerful register of love among human beings, he uses tropes of motherhood (the courtly tradition having been rendered marginal in his sweet new style).  In moments of extreme danger or poignant lessons, Virgil becomes a surrogate mother to Dante.  When the Malebranche lead the travelers astray in Inferno canto twenty-three, they make a narrow escape from the vicious demons:

My leader seized me quictly, like a mother who is
awakened by the noise and sees the flames burning close by,
                 who takes up her son and flees, caring more for
him than for herself, not stopping even to put on her shift (37-42)
…[then] did my master down that wall, carrying
me along on his breast like his son, not his
companion. (49-51)

Dante understands the selfless instinct of a mother to protect her child, and here Virgil becomes a mother, not even caring about her own nakedness (or state of being inappropriately dressed) to save her son.  Her love for her child is actualized in with swift, possibly self-sacrificing urgency.  Virgil carries Dante, not on his back, but on his breast, an image of a mother that a young child might retain and cherish as time passes.  Would that Dante had a Virgil-mother when he barely escaped Florentine persecution!  In the corresponding canto (twenty-three) in Purgatorio, with the specter of Virgil’s departure looming ever closer, Dante calls Virgil “my more-than-father” (line 4), a prevenient line that we (the Poet and reader) digest as impending loss while we tentatively proceed through the poem.  In fact, the closer to Virgil’s departure we come, the more the Poet’s attachment to him grows beyond that of a student and poet’s affection for his mentor and travel guide.  Statius’ lavish adoration of Virgil exceeds that of a mentor as he says that Virgil “was my mama and / was my nurse in writing poetry” (Purgatorio 21, 97-8).  The metaphor implies that a mother nourishes not just our bodies, but our souls and our callings at the most fundamental of levels, including our soul’s desires when we are still too young to fully realize them (calling to mind the mother of St. Dominic as a pregnant prophet). 

The simile in the opening of Paradiso canto twenty-two, wherein Dante is startled by the deafening thunderclap, underscores not only Beatrice’s power, but the power of any mother to calm a child scared out of his wits:
Stunned and bewildered, I turned to my guide
like a little child that runs always where he most has confidence,
and she, like a mother who quickly helps her
pallid, breathless son with the voice that has the power to calm him…(1-6) 

Dante was old enough to remember his mother when she died, but not old enough to have a broader knowledge of her role in his life as he grew older and his understanding became more complex.  His experience of being mothered ends when his is about six years old.  Dante’s tropes about mothers are not about their cooking meals, preparing their children to go to school each morning, nagging their to be dutiful to their schoolmasters, aging, or any other interactions that an older child or adolescent would experience with a mother.  Dante’s similes of mothers protecting children may not be merely obvious or observational; it is possible that they are the only way in which he experienced his own mother.  Moreover, this memory-ideal of a strong, loving, selfless protector who can comfort her charge duringthe worst of dangers he perceives at that time is something for which Dante longs, throughout his life and in his poem, as he characterizes himself as repeatedly childlike, vulnerable, and smarita.

The relationship a mother has with her child is the basement of all human relationships and is therefore the first building block of ben comune.  Like the mothers who have abandoned their children in the Decameron’s prologue, a mother’s willful departure is an abomination that ruptures the most basic foundations of human love.  In Purgatorio canto seventeen, Lavinia loudly cries,
              O queen, why for
anger have you wished to be nothing?
You have killed yourself so as not to lose
Lavinia: now you have lost me! I am the one who
grieve [sic], mother, for your ruin more than any
other’s. (35-9)

As the notes indicate, Lavinia’s agony exceeds her grief about losing anyone else, including Turnus.  Amata’s suicide has so devastated her daughter that she is likely to spend ages on the terrace of the wrathful.

In Paradiso canto nineteen, Dante prays that God will

satisfy, breathing on me, the great lack that
has kept me hungering for so long, not finding
any food for it on earth. (25-7)

Dante’s prayer expresses thirst for God’s grace in language that connotes his personal losses.  He seems to suffer from a motherless hunger; the source of the one who nourishes him is no longer of this earth, with a great emptiness that started first with the disappearance of his most primal source of human love and nourishment.  We are not, however, left with loss, as the Commedia ends with a radiant completion and fulfillment, which would not have been possible had personal losses not paved his way into the wild woods. 

Ending with inspired words of hope, the poem is more than a journey to reach a grace that has only been dreamed but never experienced.  As Manfred reminds us in the third canto of Purgatorio,

no one so loses the eternal love
that it cannot be regained, as long as hope has any
touch of green. (33-5)
Dante’s Commedia is a highly successful attempt to climb, word by word, back into the lost world of love, belonging and understanding that we once knew before we knew words.  In a cosmos where even tragedies are tools of divine Providence that ultimately bring us closer to God, Dante’s poem ratifies the human quest to regain the best true and beautiful things we have lost.  In living well (and also perhaps by reading well), we may recover them and exist as we and one in a primal, luminous wholeness.