Zetta Elliott’s newest picture book is just what I need to launch the school year after a summer of Covid-19 and protests. The title alone, A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart, makes me take a deep breath. As I return to in-person learning, I hope to heal hearts from this moment of collective trauma. This picture book begins with a Black boy experiencing all the joys of summertime. Those feelings change from joy to fear and anger when there is a police shooting in his community. Children are certain to connect to the range of emotions and expand their vocabulary beyond happy and sad. The descriptive language that Ms. Elliott uses, “a knot of electric emotion seething, sizzling, burning,” will inspire young writers. The lessons of using our voice to express our feelings, support one another, and ask for help translate well into building community at the start of the school year.
The poem also reminds me of a tweet this summer by Dena Simmons, assistant director of Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, that stated, “Without racial context, SEL is white supremacy with a hug.” It is not enough to teach children about social emotional well being without addressing the racial context of these times. This poem gives me courage to open a conversation with my students about the protests happening as we return to school. As a white educator, I am certain to make mistakes along the way of having courageous conversations about race. However, the greatest mistake would be to ignore the dialogue all together. Instead, I will remember Ms. Elliott’s words about the place inside of me to love myself as I navigate my own feelings at the start of this school year.
You can hear Zetta Elliott read the book here (at 47:11 mark).