Ms Noel Evelyn Norris passed away in the morning of 15 February 2014. She was 95.
To many, she was a dedicated lifelong educator, whose contributions probably deserve a lot more mention and presence on the web. She is known in the Rafflesian community, namely Raffles Girls’ School, as one of the school’s long-serving principals, on top of having been a student and a teacher.
To me, she was just a tutor who had a profound impact on my life.
When I was at the early primary levels, I was somewhat convinced – by my mother – I was struggling with my languages. Mandarin – a given. English too. So I had tutors for both languages. I hated reading then. Still do now, as I only read the things that are of interest to me.
In 1994, some arrangements were made and I remember my parents telling me that the next English tutor was rather “stern” and goes by the name Ms Norris. She was the friend of a customer of the company my dad worked for at that time.
That friend was the late Ms Paramita Bandara, who taught at RGS from 1967 to 1969, during Ms Norris’ tenture as principal from 1961 to 1976, but I'm sure they go back longer than that. Ms Bandara was principal of Ang Mo Kio Secondary School, which I attended in 1996 to 1999. Ms Bandara passed away February 2013.
So, every week, from 1994 to 1999, I would be dropped off at Brighton Crescent for a one-hour session with Ms Norris. She only asked for $50-60 a month, and on hindsight, she did not really need the money; I was more of a retirement hobby and she had been teaching only a handful of kids during her retirement years. From her stories, she enjoyed tutoring and mentoring them.
From day one, she told me that I was not going to write any more stories for essays. I had to write expository essays, make a couple of points and substantiate them. Again, on hindsight, I realised on the one hand that with a limited vocabulary, I would not fare very well in the national examinations. On the other, if I ever made it to do ‘A’ Levels, expository essays would be the only choice and none of that “xiao ming goes to school” and “suddenly, I woke up and realised it was all a dream” nonsense.
This was the same strategy I later adopted for my Chinese essays for my ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level examinations, which were probably the most arduous approach. Thankfully, I had very kind teachers in Ang Mo Kio Secondary School and Nanyang Junior College, who acceded to my request to stay back after lessons with me, for half to one hour every week, so that I could run through with them common words and terms used in expository essays, to compensate for my limited vocabulary. And in the end, I got by with my Chinese.
For almost every week for 6 years, I would be writing an expository essay as a take-home assignment, based on topics and titles that Ms Norris plucked out from some exercise book that looked like it came from the 60s or 70s. And it probably did.
There would also be a weekly comprehension exercise, which was quite nerve-wrecking. She would first ask me to read aloud the comprehension text, correcting my pronunciation or asking me the definition of certain words while I was at it. I would occasionally take a sip of water after I was done with the text, and I had to immediately read aloud the question and verbally answer them on the spot.
There were lots and lots of grammar exercises, the kind I never had in Primary or even Secondary School (well thanks Lee Yock Suan). I can imagine Ms Norris correcting me right now for using the word “kind” in the previous sentence, when it is supposed to be “type” or “ones”.
“You don’t eat breakfast. You have breakfast.”
“So you’re going to take a bath? Where are you taking it to?”
Placement of adverbs and prepositions, usage of pronouns and determiners, etc.
So I got by my PSLE and ‘O’ Level examinations, and I cannot remember who decided that 6 years of tutoring was enough. I was on my own after that.
Little did I know that the many years of her tutoring and mentoring (and lots of drilling) would have an impact on my ‘A’ Level subjects and University Level essay writing. I appreciated Ms Norris’ help a lot more when I was doing my undergraduate and graduate studies.
After 1999, my mum continually reminded me to visit Ms Norris and send her postcards every December (Christmas and Birthday). I was shy and did not know what to say or do. There were years we did not visit her, but there were years when we had tea, or prata, or pie, or watched the National Day Parade on TV.
Ms Norris lived in a simple house surrounded by the massively redeveloped and reconstructed bungalows towering around it.
She always had a dog. In the mid-90s, it was a golden retriever (hope I got the breed right). From the late 90s, she had a Jack Russell (hope I got the breed right, please correct me if I'm wrong), which went by the name Tiny.
I recall she did not have a name for the dog, always calling her a “busy little bee”. Perhaps the name Tiny stuck. Tiny would always survey her garden and make periodic reports, at times interrupting the session. I remember patting and stroking Tiny many times while doing those comprehension and reading exercises with Ms Norris.
In the years I visited her, Tiny was by her side. Always happy and excitable. I learned that Tiny died in January and Ms Norris, having already suffered a stroke in November 2011, fell ill after that.
I only found out in 2013 that she had been bed-ridden following her stroke, only barely able to move her arms. Every visit thereafter was not without a lump in the throat and an at times futile attempt at fighting back the tears.
It was only a handful of visits, and I brought along my first daughter April. April liked her garden and picked a handful of flowers for her every time we were there. She enjoyed playing with Tiny too. We would bid our farewells with April blowing kisses at her, and Ms Norris mustering enough strength to return the favour.
One Sunday morning in October, April was muttering “Nors, nors, nors” at me referring to Ms Norris, and I acceded to her request to pay Ms Norris a visit. I guess April remembers her for her garden and her dresses.
Every visit to her house gave me a sense of nostalgia, except that there was a hospital bed and a team of caregivers in the last year. I’d be happy to see her slowly walking around her house, or rocking from her seat to create enough momentum to stand up.
The last visit on Sunday was as surreal as it was absolutely gut-wrenching. She rested in a coffin placed in the centre of the living room, which was cleared of its furniture. There were lots of people, some sitting in the dining room, others standing chatting and greeting others. Deborah and Carmee greeted us, but it was all a blur to me. They were part of a team overseeing Ms Norris’ care following her stroke.
On the backdrop of all her achievements and contributions to education in Singapore, what Ms Norris has done for me is rather small. It is however quite amazing that while she has given just around 300 hours of her life to tutor some random kid, the kid has managed to achieve a lot more than he thought he ever would – from all the simple things like the confidence to speak and write, to the lifelong skills of writing, having a stand and articulating it. There is a composite of other contributing factors, but as the years go by, I continue to understand and recognise the profound impact she has on me.
I guess when we’re younger, we probably have not been through enough to understand how much others have played an important role in shaping our lives and views of the world.
While she has lived a long life, it was still painful to see her go. I always wanted another opportunity again for my children to raid her garden for flowers, so they could drop them into her hands. But I guess it’s time to say goodbye.
[added 11 March 2014 and I still feel the grief now] My wife and I went to her funeral and witnessed her cremation on 19 Feb. Old RGS girls, teachers, principals were there, along with a small group relatives, her church friends and a group of Crescent Girls. It was awfully painful we had to place flowers on her as she rested in her coffin, because it reminded me of the times when my daughter was trawling her garden for flowers, picking them and later dropping them into her hands. It's painfully poetic.
When it was time to say goodbye, some of us wept, some waved goodbye, most were singing and they probably drew strength in solidarity in such sad times. After she was sent off, and when the goodbyes were said, the old girls broke out into the RGS song. I think it was ex-principal Carmee who started it. Powerful moment. Fitting tribute (although she has done a fair bit of CGS too).
It'll always be for selfish reasons we want others to be healthy and never grow old, so that there can so much more to talk about and share - stuff like "I graduated" "I got a job" "I got a family" "I'm correcting my daughter's English" "I'm somebody" etc, all of which probably ending with a heart-felt "... and thank you".
From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Ms Norris.