When I was a student at St. Patrick’s Seminary, we had a great teacher for Mathematics, Additional Mathematics and Physical Science – an Irish missionary priest, Fr. John Ryan who has been in Malawi for 37 years and is currently professor of mathematics at Mzuzu University. Father Ryan made sure that we all excelled in his subjects. He invested a lot of his time and even other resources to ensure that all students did well.
This included, where necessary, arranging for special holiday camps for up to one week or more for target groups to focus on mastering mathematics and additional mathematics. It was no wonder that his classes could perform as high as half the class having distinctions in mathematics. I don’t think that anyone ever failed mathematics in Junior Certificate (JC) or Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) during his entire tenure as a mathematics teacher at St Patricks Seminary (where he taught for approximately five years).
To achieve this, Fr. Ryan used to give weekly mathematics tests. In our class, he gave us a full mathematics test every Thursday night for two hours. He would mark on Friday and give us the scripts back on Friday or Saturday so that over the weekend, everyone would revise his papers and on Monday, Fr. Ryan would revise with the whole class. And we also had daily ‘homework’ or assignments – lots of mathematical problems to solve! It was a very rigorous focus on mathematics.
What I remember remarkably from his tests was what he referred to as a Major Mistake (MM). As he was marking the scripts, if he came across a mathematical expression or equation that was completely wrong beyond reason, he would write in very large print MM – designating that a student had performed a Major Mistake. An easy example of a major mistake would be if a student was calculating probability and then he finds an answer like 5 or 26. Fr. Ryan expected a student to remember that probability is always between 0 and 1 and never greater than 1. An answer like 5 or 26 to a probability question would automatically attract Fr. Ryan’s inscription of MM.
Later on when he moved on to become professor of mathematics at Mzuzu University (Mzuni) in the late 1990s, I asked him if he was still using MM at Mzuni? He told me that being a university, he had upgraded that to MMM which stands for Massive Major Mistake! I would imagine that the justification would be that university has cream of the nation who should ordinarily not be expected to make easy and obvious mistakes. MM or indeed MMM was very motivating – it made students to be very careful with their work. We all watched what we wrote when doing mathematics examinations or even homework so that we avoid MM.
I suppose in life too, there are things that we do which fall in the category of MM – all of us. These are mistakes that we make while we know very well that they are mistakes and avoidable. Yet, such mistakes can have huge negative impact on us or those around us. If we drive carelessly and over speed, we can cause bad accidents which can result in our death or serious injury. In fact, we can even cause serious injury or death of others. We can avoid careless driving and over speeding quite easily.
Another example would be at work places, we all know that if we ‘steal’ money or we break any of the rules and policies of the company, we can get fired from the job thereby becoming jobless without regular and steady income. When that happens, we would regret the rest of our lives, simply because we did not put in measures to avoid the MMs or indeed MMMs!
You may not have attended Fr. Ryan’s mathematics classes at the seminary or Prof Fr. John Ryan’s lectures at Mzuzu University to experience MM or MMM respectively. However, you can still remember his good principle so that you avoid MM and even MMM in real life. Good luck! n