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Saturday, April 14, 2018


(Liberty Bell)

A Tribute to Liberty-Bell from Carolyn Higgs, friend and former colleague at Edgewood College of Education.

A major role-player in the introduction of the Dramatic Arts in the Secondary Schools in the late 1970’s, Liberty Bell, passed away after a brief illness from pancreatic cancer in November 2017. In paying tribute to Liberty, a slice of South African education history is remembered.

Liberty, born Elizabeth Anne Charlton Bell, graduated from the University of Natal having studied under the leadership of Professor Elizabeth Sneddon, who had been instrumental in first persuading the “academic world” that what she entitled “Speech and Drama” was worthy of academic study and status at University level. Natal and the then Westville Universities were the first to run a graduate and post-graduate degree programme in Speech and Drama in the 1960’s.

Introducing this subject into Government-controlled schools was another hard nut to crack, but under the watchful and no doubt wary eyes of the Principal of Berea Girls’ High, Liberty was the first teacher allowed to introduce a weekly lesson of Speech and Drama to the Std 6 (Grade 8) classes.

The pupils’ enthusiasm for Miss Bell’s classes and confirmation from the school’s Head of English that she could see evidence of Miss Bell’s pupils’ improvement in language and communication skills and development as well as confidence and creativity, led the Education Department to setting up a syllabus committee to formalise the subject in this Grade across all schools and eventually to create and introduce syllabuses for the rest of the Grades from 9 to 12.

Liberty remained an active member of this departmental committee and became one of the long-standing examiners for the Matriculation examination and for the subject at Edgewood College of Education.

Apart from a “locum” period at Edgewood College and being the Schools’ Subject Advisor in 1989, when new teachers very much appreciated her support and advice, most of Liberty’s teaching career from 1985 was as senior teacher of Speech and Drama at Westville Girls High school where she built up a most successful Speech and Drama Department. She was renowned for her part in producing excellent annual school productions and for the high quality of her pupils’ work both in practice and theory.

Sadly for education, Liberty decided to retire in 2001 and spend some years sailing the seas with her husband. She lived her retirement years in Howick and was to be seen helping with the organisation and control of the Hilton Festival each year.

In her farewell speech to her school, Liberty said: “Why did I prefer teaching Drama to the other subjects? Well, Elizabeth Sneddon said that the difference between being alive and being dead is the degree of impact that you have on your surroundings. I teach Drama because it is the one subject that allows you to make more impact on the world around you”.

Her speech also included the following:

“When I left University, I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I did know that the one thing I did not want to do was teach! I tried various occupations and finally found myself in commerce. Everyone said “What a waste! All that university training in Drama wasted!” Believe me, no education is ever wasted. I’m not an artist, but taking Art for Matric made me a more sensitive and perceptive person and my Drama training helped me in my Commercial career. However, one day when I was in England, trudging to work in the dark at 9 o’clock, in the cold and the snow, I thought: “I wonder if I’m alive or dead? I’m having no impact on my surroundings! Anybody else could do the job I’m doing as well as I do it. What is the whole point of my existence?” In actual fact, I was thoroughly bored! (I found that I tended to get bored with all my commercial jobs after a while.) So I thought about it for a long time and decided that what I really did want to be was a teacher. That was when I returned to South Africa, obtained my teacher’s diploma and started teaching – and I have been teaching ever since: nearly 26 years!”

While few of today’s pupils may have heard of Liberty Bell, her impact is still felt, not only on the varied and diverse lives and careers of her many past pupils but as one of those pioneers who fought for placing “Speech and Drama”, “Drama”, “Arts and Culture” or “The Dramatic Arts” as an important subject in formal education in this Province and in this country. -  Carolyn Higgs