An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 6)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2 Pt3 Pt4 Pt5

A lot of feelings today, which was the day of our last class in which both outside (Claremont) students and inside (incarcerated) students were together. Next week is finals week for our students, so our outside students don’t attend class.

We were able to successfully get through all of the mathematical machinery that we needed to understand the RSA cryptosystem, and we spent the day going through some examples, encrypting and decrypting messages (for very small numbers, since we only had four-function calculators). Fun times! It felt so satisfying that RSA was such a nice way to tie together everything that we had been doing. I had no idea that this was going to be the “goal” of the class when we set out. It was an off-comment that I made one day about how number theory can be used in cryptography that seemed to be interesting to students, and so I plotted a course for us to end with RSA.

But the most meaningful moment today was this: One of our inside students has not been able to attend class for the last few days because he was reassigned to some other kind of vocational class (against his will) that met at the same time as our class. Nevertheless, we have been exchanging work so he has been keeping up with the class. Today, in his packet of work he included a written reflection and a note that he wanted me to share it with the whole class.

In this reflection, he explained that he originally signed up for a lot of classes but didn’t get into any of them except this number theory course. He was not excited about it. He said that he avoids social contact with anyone and considers it a good thing if he can get through an entire day without talking to anyone. Coming to this class and being forced to work with other people was initially a big challenge for him. But, over time, he found the interactions with other students really enjoyable and he grew to love coming to class and working with others. He concluded his reflection by thanking all of us in the class for helping him grow mathematically and also socially. Was hard to read his reflection today without crying.

The outside students said their goodbyes to the inside students and vice versa. They shared their appreciations for each other. One guy on the inside thanked us for helping to restore his faith in people “on the outside” because we interacted with him as fellow human beings.

So many feels today. Next week will be my last week with the guys inside.

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