Our Stories as Windows and Mirrors

Ruth MendozaRuth Mendoza
Kindergarten teacher, Faculty, Staff, and Parent SEED co-facilitator
The Meadowbrook School of Weston
Weston, Massachusetts
10 years teaching experience
SEED New Leaders’ Week 2010

When I think of windows I imagine natural light pouring into a room, especially during sunny days. With a little imagination, the word mirror evokes childhood memories of my mother diligently getting rid of one that had just cracked or shattered, for that was considered bad luck. I remember that spilling salt and opening an umbrella inside the house meant also bad luck, but that’s a different story. In short, mirrors are ordinary objects that reflect back what is in front of them. Beyond their practical uses, windows and mirrors had little relevance in my daily life, or so I thought.

This was the case until the reflective nature of the SEED training, which began with filling out my application, invited me to consider the reasons behind my diversity work. My initial soul searching took me through what I had done up to this point. Retracing my involvement in various diversity initiatives was uplifting, as it made me realized that I had found my voice along the way. Eventually, I arrived to when and why I had embarked on this journey. I later compared this poignant moment in my life with some sort of “awakening” or “call for action.”

The year was 2002. The day was an ordinary morning. I was busily getting my children ready for school — making breakfast, getting them dressed, and finally brushing my youngest daughter’s hair. With her braids almost done, she unexpectedly asked, “Mom, can I bring a mirror to school?” Puzzled by her question, I paused briefly before adding the last details to her hair. The response already taking shape in my head was centered mainly on safety and the potential for the mirror to become a distraction in class. I felt justified in my arguing that a kindergarten child did not need to carry such an object to school. After all, mirrors break easily and could lead to injury. I could imagine my daughter and her friends finding creative ways of using it in their play. But beyond any possible scenarios, I asked myself why would she want to take a mirror to school!

“I see my friends and I see my teachers, but nobody looks like me. If I had a mirror I could look in it, and I wouldn’t forget what I look like.”

Rather than inquiring about my daughter’s request, my focus became fixed on her and my reflection on the dresser mirror in front of us. I noticed that she too was quietly and intently looking at it. Was she not happy with how I was fixing her hair? No, of course not, I told myself, she likes her dark, long hair braided. And just like that, the answer became clear. She wants to take a mirror to school to check on her hairstyle, I decided. With only a couple of minutes to spare before leaving for school, I began to swiftly explain why bringing a mirror to school was not an option. Still looking at the mirror, my daughter broke her silence as if I were not even speaking. “Mom, every day I go to school.” Pause. “I see my friends and I see my teachers, but nobody looks like me. If I had a mirror I could look in it, and I wouldn’t forget what I look like.” My heart sank.

Her words replayed in my head incessantly at first and like a distant echo as my day progressed. My maternal instincts dictated that I should fix this problem, and fix it quickly so the burden could be lifted from my daughter, but I did not know how or whether it could be fixed. Her words taunted me. Yes, we were perhaps the only Latino family in the school and we did stand out in this predominantly white environment, but shouldn’t the benefits of a great education outweigh any sacrifices made along the way? In the days and months that followed I struggled to reconcile her heartbreaking experience with my hopes of providing my children with the opportunities that I could only dream about in my native Bolivia. Since then I have been on a journey to find open and engaging ways in which to address issues of diversity in my school community. This journey led me to SEED, where I was first introduced to Emily Style’s work.

While my family’s mirror story points to the lack of being physically reflected by those around us, Emily Style’s metaphor of Windows and Mirrors offers a broader application. It illustrates that as we partake in the meaningful sharing of our experiences/stories with others, we encounter a reflection (mirror) of our own story, or we are given a unique opportunity to look into the windows of another person’s experience. The idea of finding mirrors and/or windows in each story was appealing to me as it opened a door of possibilities, such as the possibility of breaking down stereotypes or gaining new perspectives.

Tags: Leader Essays Race and Ethnicity Windows and Mirrors

— Cheryl Robinson, Supervisor, Office of Minority Achievement, Arlington Public Schools, Virginia

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