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An English teacher in the Bronx invites a pair of poets to speak at a high school assembly. The poets read a collaboration they wrote which includes “slurs against blacks and gays.” The students were then asked to write words on index cards—“remembrances, colors and references to pop-culture icons”—that would then converge as poems. You can guess what happened next :

The poets had set the tone for the exercise by reading a poem they had written together, which uses startling, offensive language and has in its first three lines the harshest slurs against blacks and gays. The same slurs emerged on the cards, written by students in anonymity, then read out loud by peers who picked the cards at random from a pile stacked on a desk.

The reading went on uninterrupted for 30 minutes at least, one of the poets, Denise Duhamel, recalled in an interview on Friday. According to articles published on Friday in the school’s newspaper, The Horace Mann Record, it set off a mix of disconcerted laughter, confusion and, most of all, soul-searching among teachers and the 700 students in the audience at first, and then throughout the school.

For some reason, the two poets say they were unable to hear the student’s presentation. How would they have reacted if they had?

“What would we have done if we’d heard it? We ourselves probably would have been in shock,” [Duhamel] said. “I honestly don’t know what we would have done if we had heard it. We invited them to express themselves, and then they did.”

Indeed they did. Those silly kids thought that since the adults were using belittling slurs they could too. They didn’t realize that the only people who are allowed to use such language are African American rappers from New York and white academics from Florida.

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