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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 79: A Refreshing Foreigner As Our Math Teacher

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 79  A Refreshing Foreigner As Our Math Teacher

We were  well into the third week before Mr. Allen Brown, our Canadian mathematics teacher, arrived. Tall, athletic, and casual, he whistled down the corridor. He was taking a few years off before pursuing graduate work at Cambridge. He did not so much enter class as wander in. He was embarrassed when we all stood up. He was taken aback thinking that we were in mass protest and ready to walk out with his arriving late. After a long silence waiting for him to greet us first, as was the tradition at Malay College, we finally said in semi-unison seeing that he had remained silent, “Good morning, Sir.” Presumably they did not greet their teachers in Canada. 

            What I noticed right away were his pants; they were like my first one, khaki and un-pleated. He had on a long-sleeved white shirt and tie that lent elegance to his casualness. New to the country, he did not harbor any preconceived ideas, and proceeded to treat us like his students back home. He began without any fuss; no long drawn-out preamble on how “tough” calculus would be or that we had to buckle up. He assumed that we could handle his subject matter. 

            He began by drawing on the board a series of arcs from the same center point, each successive one with a longer radius. Then he asked us to comment on the shapes of the arcs. 

            That was obvious; as the radii got longer, the arcs became flatter, or less curved. No mystery there. Then he asked us to imagine an arc with a radius of infinity. That would be almost straight, we responded. He beamed. “Yes! A straight line is but a curve with a radius of infinity.”

            “Now imagine the other extreme,” he continued. “Consider two points on a curve infinitely close to each other.” Then he took a small arc and magnified it serially, and with each magnification the curve became flatter. “As you can see, if I were to magnify this part of the curve a zillion times,” he gestured with his outspread arms, “the two adjacent points on it would essentially be on a straight line.” 

            Then he exclaimed, “There you have it! A curve is nothing but a series of infinitely short straight lines with variable slopes.” He went on to explain that what we had learned about the properties of a straight line were just as applicable to a curve, or at least an infinitely small part of it. 

            Thus was the mystery of variable change and differential calculus revealed to me! I had taken the subject the year before in From Five and had aced it. Yet I did not grasp its concepts. All I did was memorize the formula and plug in the numbers. The surprise was that I did well just with that. Thanks to Mr. Brown, I now had a fuller understanding of the underlying concepts. 

            Later that November we sat for the national examination (subsidiary level for Lower Sixth Form). When the results were released the following February, our entire class but two had aced calculus, a record not just for the school but also the country. We were whooping it up back at the dorm when Mr. Brown came upon us and wondered what the excitement was. To him, it was not a surprise at all; he had seen our performances on the many class tests he had given us during the year. For him, the surprise was that we were surprised. 

            I was pleased for Mr. Brown, but for very different reasons. Malay College was an elite school and a posting there was highly coveted. Yet Brown was raw and untrained. The other teachers did not bother to conceal their disdain for him, seeing him as but an expression of latent malignant tribalism. That is, Headmaster Ryan would not have accepted Brown at our school except for the fact he (Brown) was a fellow ‘white man.’ After our superb performances with our Lower Six national calculus examination however, nobody ever referred to Brown again as that ‘hitchhiker’ or ‘pseudo’ teacher. Trained or not, permanent or temporary, foreign or ‘our’ kind, he was very effective and we loved him. Brown had also done a superb job coaching the junior varsity rugby team, an achievement not lost on Ryan.


            Years later I would read about another math teacher in a Los Angeles inner-city school, Mr. Jaime Escalante. When his Hispanic students excelled in their AP (Advanced Placement, equal to first year university) calculus, the test administrator suspected mass cheating and forced them to retake it under a strict external invigilator. They did, and they replicated their earlier success. Escalante’s experience was made into the celebrated movie, “Stand and Deliver.” 

Next:  Excerpt # 80:  High Table Dining 


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