Windows and Mirrors

My son practices this technique in his language arts class for seventh grade: when he reads new material, particularly fiction, his teacher asks him if the story acts as a window or a mirror for him. In case it isn’t obvious, a ‘window’ is a story that allows the reader to look in at someone else’s life, and a ‘mirror’ is a story that allows the reader to look at a reflection of themselves.

So far, my son is reading stories about financial hardship and racial and religious discrimination and surviving violence…he hasn’t read a story yet this year where he’s answered ‘mirror.’ They’ve all been windows. Which is good. It’s good that my son hasn’t had to live through anything particularly difficult or traumatic so far in his young life, and it’s good that he’s reading stories about people who HAVE. It’s helpful for a kid like my son, whose life is stacked up with lots of privilege to see into some lives that aren’t as easy as his; for him to know not everyone’s life looks and feels like his.

In discussing the stories he’s reading this year (I’ve read most of them myself in the past, and it’s been nice remembering them and talking them over with my son), and this technique, I’ve found that when I read material, or watch it even, particularly (but not limited to) fiction…I always find myself unable to choose if it’s a window or a mirror to me. It’s sort of like a window I can also see my reflection in, or a mirror that lets me see what’s going on behind me too. With most stories I’ve enjoyed, I often gain insight into how other people live and what other people experience, but also, with so many of the fictional characters I’ve read or watched, I’ve also related to something they went through; something they felt. And this has been helpful to me too. How many mirrors I’ve been able to find in unconventional places. It’s been good for me to see myself as similar to so many story creators who are very different from me, not only to settle in the knowledge that despite so much difference in practical and surface experience, at our cores, we really do have so much in common, but also, it’s just helped me be more aware and accepting and understanding of my own feelings and experiences.
I suppose it’s strange for me to have more compassion and understanding for a stranger, even a fictional one, than I do for myself, but often that’s the case with me. I’ll be overly negative and critical of myself, but then I’ll read about a public figure in memoir who felt the same ways about themselves and immediately feel defensive and protective of them. I’ll see a fictional character being afraid and guarded in their relationships with other people, and want to encourage them to open up and trust. And then I realize that if I want to protect and encourage other people who have the same feelings and problems and struggles as me…I should be protective and encouraging to myself too. Maybe it’s embarrassing and shameful that I often have to recognize the struggle in someone else first, but I suppose that’s better than never recognizing it, and totally missing out on the self awareness and self kindness. And it’s helped my writing. I was just telling a friend the other day that one of the great benefits I get from writing fiction is working through my own feelings and issues by assigning them to a ‘stranger’ that I can then lovingly move toward contentment and solution.

Anyway, I’m glad to be involved with my son’s studies as much as I am this year. This technique is interesting, and I wish a teacher when I was young would have introduced it to me, so I could have thought about it earlier than now when I’m a mom in her 40s. But I’m still grateful to think about it now. And I’m satisfied that most stories I’ve delighted in are both a window and a mirror to me.

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