As a full-time counselor at a large urban high school, I was struck by how often academic difficulties, anger and depression, aggression and deliquency were caused by the students not being aware of remedy or recourse to societally inflicted harsh or unfair treatment. Told to get his books and get out, a student left school with an incredible burden of resentment and despair, but never thought to challenge the right of the school to deny him an education without a fair hearing. Exhausted, irritable, asleep through most of his classes, another student worked six nights a week to pay the balance owing on a car which had already been repossessed and "sold" for a fraction of its original price by the car dealer. Yet in Manitoba you cannot both "seize and sue."
Gradually, the full weight of a basic fact of human rights forced me to re-examine the service I provided students in the school:
THAT HUMAN RIGHTS -- THE RIGHTS OF THE INDIVIDUAL IN SOCIETY -- MEAN NOTHING UNLESS THE INDIVIDUAL (1) IS AWARE OF HIS OR HER RIGHTS AND (2) HAS THE MEANS TO DEFEND THEM.
I began to think that maybe instead of dealing with students individually after the fact, it might make more sense to offer a course informing students of their rights as students, members of families, consumers, employees, sexual beings, and as women and making them aware of the agencies and organizations in our society whose purpose was to protect those rights.
I had been particularly concerned by a case of incest that had lead an honor student (three firsts in her Grade XII year) to become so divided from herself that she became almost totally dysfunctional. Why had this bright, sensible young woman acquiesced to something so foreign to her conscience that it destroyed her? Because, I was finally to decide, like the other students she did not know her rights, did not realize that she had the right to say no, that there were resources available to her.
The course, Individual Rights in Society, was approved as a six week module in senior high school English on condition that it include reading and written assignments. We used materials and speakers from the Rental Man's office, the Consumers Bureau, the Human Rights Commission, the Advisory Council on the Status of Women. While all of the course was well-received, students felt more time was needed in the area of women's rights.
I got permission to offer a six-week module on women's rights in society. I called it "Women Now - Women Then" and stressed with the head of the English Department the strong literary flavor it would have. Students discovered our Manitoba hero, Nellie McClung, Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy, but they also read Mother Was Not a Person, Vaginal Politics, Women and Madness, The Descent of Woman, The Second Sex, The Female Eunuch and Against Our Will. They read the poetry of Plath, Rich, Piercy, Atwood, Clifton, Sexton, and Griffin. More important they listened to, interacted with speakers like June Menzies, Chris Lane, Heather Bishop.
When I transferred to another more traditional (but closer to home) high school in the division, I wanted to take my course with me, but there the course would have to be a full- semester credit course. Even then it seemed unlikely that I would gain approval for its inclusion in the program of studies.
At the time, the Department of Education was offering grants for innovative programs in the area of curriculum development. It was an opportunity to get funding to purchase teaching materials (and thereby remove one barrier to introducing the course), and to legitimize the course by securing the Department's stamp of approval.
With help from the newly appointed Women's Studies Consultant, Heather Henderson, on the politics of the Department, my proposal to develop a curriculum together with a supportive kit of materials (modelled loosely on the Women's Kit from O.I.S.E.) was one of a handful of finalists in the screening process.