For Some Students, Life Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair


My pace is quick as I reach the base of the hill, walking underneath a canopy of maple, elm and birch trees. The August nights are getting dark earlier and, as I look skyward, the gray clouds are tinged with pink. My running shoes press off the pavement, and I notice that the sky towards the west is growing dark as storm clouds loom – a testament to the heavy humidity of the day. Better walk quickly. On tonight’s walk, I pass the pale green, split-level house I called home for my first 15 years. Now, I live two blocks away from there in a quiet, suburban area in Ottawa.

Walking, I pay homage to my history and the faces of my past. Each house I pass emits an energy–emotion, history and unspoken truths. In each, behind closed doors, people are free to be themselves.

On the left is the house where Heather lived. The tallest girl I knew. Her Farrah Fawcett hair was the envy of every girl, including me. On the right, is what used to be Kenny’s house, and buried memories of he and I eating Kraft dinner while watching the Flintstones in his basement. Further ahead is Peter John’s house. PJ was my partner in crime. I can still hear the screen door slam shut, as he runs towards me dragging his red wagon behind him. His lawn was the venue for many soccer baseball games, and hide-and-go-seek games we played until way after dark. My house, directly across the street from his, looked into the field where we biked in the summer and skated in the winter. The tree we used to lean our bikes against and climb is still there, off in the distance. I continue to wind up my street and, as I walk, I note how much everything still looks the same which makes me feel very connected to my past.

Each house I pass brings forth its history, and tells its multiple stories.

As the sun goes down and the night grows darker, I approach the small red brick house on the corner. My friend, Tracey, once lived there. My thoughts of her are jolted by a rumble of distant thunder. A storm is pending. The breeze blows and the night strangely draws to a silence. I pause to look at the red bricks, and collect my breath. As I do, my heart beats rapidly.

All these years later, a dark cloud remains over the house. This house–its walls, the windows, the doors–knows pain, fear and utter heartbreak. I wonder if the new inhabitants can sense the darkness that is still tangible to me. A painful reminder that an unassuming exterior, sometimes hides a harsh, sad truth.

It was the Spring of Fifth Grade. Tracey invited me over to spend the night. We had been friends since Kindergarten. This, however, was the first time I had slept over at her house. Her parents were respected in the community–Dad, a police officer and Mom, a member of our school’s PTA.

Tracey and I had been friends at my mother’s encouragement. Tracey was the girl with the odd behaviour at school. She was known as the “mean girl” who made faces, and stuck out her tongue at both teachers and classmates. But, Tracey had a secret sadness in her eyes, one that, I guess, my mother saw. Encouraged from an early age to accept those who did not quite fit-in, I, thereby, counted Tracey as a friend. I was, possibly, her only friend.  

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor—


(Mother to Son, Langston Hughes)

Planning to stay up all night, we settled into the basement. Tracey fell asleep early, leaving me to gaze at the ceiling. I was conscious of every creak and every footstep above.The “tick-tick-tick” of the clock on the wall grew deafening.  At some point, I fell asleep.

My slumber was interrupted by the loud banging overhead. It started with yelling and swearing – every imaginable word I was told never to say. A sick feeling swept over me and settled in my gut. I felt as if someone was stepping on my chest. I pulled the blanket in tightly around me, swaddling myself. As the punches and blows rained down, I heard him say,  “Someday I am going to show the neighbours how stupid you are and how violent I am.”

The violence shook the house and penetrated every molecule of air I tried so hard to inhale. Furniture flew. Items were thrown. Glass shattered against the linoleum floor. With each, I imagined the sad visual of what my ears witnessed.

As I heard, “I am going to kill. Do you hear me? I am going to kill someday,” I pictured Tracey’s mother with her hands up against her face, blocking the punches. His hands against her throat, her body shoved up against the wall. I pictured his rage, the sweat rolling down his red, blotched face. I pictured his height towering over her, her panic, her torment, bent there cowering in a corner, waiting for it to end. I feared he would come downstairs to us. Frozen in fear, there in the basement, I gripped the blanket, hoping, praying that Tracey’s older brothers would come to the rescue. They never did.

The horror of this indelible moment is forever etched into my memory. Life’s greatest lessons leave their impact without choice or hesitation. That night, in the basement of the red brick house with Tracey, was one of those times.

Through it all, Tracey slept peacefully. Undisturbed. All these years later, this is the most telling part of that whole night to me.

Laying awake. Waiting for the sun to rise, I imagined the happenings above as a crime scene with blood, knocked over furniture, and complete disarray. It took all the courage I could muster for me to walk up the stairs the next morning. The first thing I noticed, at the top of the stairs, was the ray of sunlight beating in through the sheer white drapes against the kitchen table. The house was pristine, calm and there was no evidence of the violence. I left Tracey in the midst of her family turmoil.

Now, some thirty years later, standing on the sidewalk outside the house, it feels like yesterday. My first experience of the horror of domestic violence. The terror of the moment and the hidden truths afterward.

But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.

The abused women, like Tracey’s mom, are our neighbours, our family members, our colleagues, maybe even, ourselves. Their children are our students. The ruthless damage of the violence they endure is remarkably hidden. The harmful scars of abuse are sometimes ones that no one sees. Manipulation, coercion, degradation, and threats that make mere thoughts of what the perpetrator might be capable of doing evoke panic, fear, and dread. This is the cloud that surrounds women and children enslaved in the fractured lives of domestic abuse. It insidiously follows them wherever they go, whatever they do.

This is what I realized that morning, standing in that pristine kitchen in the aftermath. The family went about the business of the day. But, the scars remained

I now understood Tracey’s behaviour at school. A tempest was spinning within her at all times. Her odd behaviour and defiance were manifestations of the mechanisms she put in place to survive her life. She created roadblocks to developing healthy relationships with both her peers and teachers, probably out of fear her sad realities would be exposed.

Thirty years ago, abuse was left within the domain of the family home. Students like Tracey, whose behaviours reflected issues at home, were dealt with in punitive, disciplinary ways: trips to the office, missed recess, lines to write or standing in the hallway. Now, I understand how school exacerbated Tracey’s feelings of isolation, neglect and fear. While school was, I am sure, the safe haven for the six hours she was there, her social emotional needs were not met there. This is one of the greatest tragedies.

Statistically, there is more than one Tracey in every classroom. The child with the secret sadness in his or her eyes. Sometimes, as with Tracey, the harmful effects of the abuse manifest themselves as behaviours in the classroom. Sometimes that student is simply withdrawn, hoping just to blend in.

Dark clouds and brewing tempests have many sources. For Tracey, it was a violent home life.  For other students, it may be anxiety, depression, or a host of other factors which interfere with the learning process. These factors may manifest themselves as outright acts of defiance, failure to complete work, conflicts with peers and may even result in self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Cries for help sometimes spill out directly onto notebook pages. I have seen this as an educator at the elementary level. These are students who invest every bit of energy attempting to regulate their own behaviour, that learning the curriculum is secondary. Transversing this path with our students is a task we must undertake, for our world is different than it was when we went to school. Many issues that were once not discussed or shunned are now in the forefront of discussion. When we encourage and validate student voice, we need to be prepared for what they tell us. This is our hidden curriculum.

Every day, I, as a teacher, walk the trenches with my students. And, on some days, the trenches are filled with the wounded, the embattled, the fighting, the abused, and the hidden. No, I am not  a therapist, counsellor or social worker.  But, these students depend on me, and other teachers, to nurture, restore and love them so they can learn what they are supposed to learn in school. This is something, I think, that non-educators, who do not walk in these trenches every day, cannot fully understand.

Fortunately, my school board , the Ottawa Catholic School Board, focuses on Restorative Practice and on the Social Emotional Needs of the learner. We know to look at the antecedents of behaviour, and have practices to help student regulate their own learning. There are students who are on a heightened level of agitation at all times. Sometimes this manifests as aggression, sometimes, however, it is hidden under a veil of compliance. We know today that regulation of student behaviour starts at the door in the morning with a check in. Is your student ready to learn? Are they tired, nervous, agitated or angry? If so, we as educators, deal with this from the onset. We understand that students cannot learn if their basic needs are not met.  And, today, we  empower students to own their own learning by using the strategies to up-regulate or down-regulate their own behaviour. In schools today, empathy is a guiding principle and we lead our practice accordingly. This is because we refuse to leave our students in that dark cloud, and shine the light to reveal the hidden truths.

We all have stories that influence us as educators – the faces of our past.  For me, Tracey’s story reminds me to look behind the behaviour of the student to the underlying cause. It reminds me that sometimes we need to shine the light into the darkness where others dare not look. Teaching is a delicate journey with each student, and we need to be careful not to trample on fragile terrain. For some students, life ain’t no crystal stair, but, we can help them build the path onward. We can be the ones to shine that light, to help them find courage, and to give them the hope to walk in faith. That is what the faces of our past guide us to do. Sometimes, those faces, are our greatest teachers. God bless you, Tracey.You have taught me well.

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now—

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

For information and support on Domestic Violence, please consult

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