What is this s&*#@?

N. is a new student. She comes into class swearing. “What is this s&*#@?” And then, F%$#@ this, and F%$#@ that.

“You’re in school, I remind her.”

“So?” She asks? “S&*#@ comes out everyone’s ass, why can’t I say it?”

“Because you’re in school,” I say.

N. is wiry. Her jaw is set to challenge but her dark eyes sparkle. She has long black hair, and there’s a purple crescent moon under her left eye from when she got jumped during lunch the other day. She wears the black polyester pants from her uniform (she’s an aide at an old folks home) beneath her puffy black winter jacket, which she doesn’t take off during class.

I walk around the room, checking on students’ progress. She crooks her arm over her poem. “Don’t read it,” she warns me.

“I won’t if you don’t want me to,” I say.

“You’ll be angry at me.”

“I doubt that,” I say.

She pushes the paper toward me. In her poem she has compared the beauty of her face to new grass and the moon. And then I see the line she thinks will anger me. She writes that her teeth are f%$#@ed like the ghetto.

“You were wrong,” I tell her, “I’m not angry. I think it’s a beautiful poem.”

She looks at me as if she’s waiting for more; the part where she has to go sit in the principal’s office or something.

“What about …”

“It works in this poem,” I tell her. “A poet has to choose the right word for the poem.”

The other day in class she came in swearing again. “Save it for your poem – but only if you need it,” I say.

“But I feel like s&*#@!”

I tell her that expression is a cliché, and not worthy of a poet. We discuss metaphor briefly. “Compare how you feel to something else,” I challenge.

She sits down to write. Her poem is full of heartbreaking sadness. In it she describes her uncle’s death, and her feelings of guilt that she is somehow to blame. She compares her grief to the darkness, then she writes, “I feel worse than what happened to the Twin Towers.”

As she reads the poem to the class she begins to cry.

Not only were those swear words a cliché, I think, they were a shield, too. But I don’t deliver any more lectures. Instead, I just pass the box of tissues and tell her how much I liked her poem.