Drugs, arson and violence: My year abroad teaching in France’s own Tower Hamlets

Language students' years abroad were never meant to be this tough. But James Rothwell taught at a notorious Parisian school and lived to tell the tale

It is eight o’clock in the morning and Mr Hamoudi, an English teacher in the notorious banlieues of Paris, is leafing through his class register.

“This one is very difficult,” he says, jabbing his finger at a headshot of a boy of eight or nine, “his parents were evicted and they might be thrown out of the country. Living in a hotel now. Very troubled boy.”

“She is intelligent and works hard,” he says, pointing to a young girl, “but it’s a terribly sad story. Her mother committed suicide recently. We’re keeping an eye on her.”

“And this one wants to be a tough guy,” he sighs, pointing to another, “bad situation at home. Violent parents, we think. Takes it out on his classmates.”

I’m beginning my first day as a languages assistant in Seine- St-Denis, the notorious Parisian suburb which made headlines in 2005 after rioters clashed with police and burned over 9,000 cars.

Mr Hamoudi is one of the more driven teachers at the school. Undeterred by the students’ slipping grades and disadvantaged backgrounds he is determined to bring out the best in them.

Even the school premises are against him - dilapidated mobiles homes set up after the old school was burned down. He and his colleagues have been waiting almost 10 years for the council’s blueprints of a salubrious new building to become reality.

“What I try to teach the pupils here is that they are a bit like plants,” he tells me, “With a plant, it doesn’t matter what’s under the soil, what is important are the flowers that grow at the top. Your roots aren’t important here, it’s what you achieve.”

It’s a stirring pep talk for my first hour on the job. But I quickly learned that some pupils were so entrenched in the mentality of the '93', France’s very own gangster culture, that they had little interest in ever leaving the banlieues.

After an exhausting first period inventing elaborate ways of miming household chores, I slip into the hubbub of the staff room, where a hushed discussion is taking place about what to do with a certain third year pupil.

“They’ve got to get rid of him,” one of them was saying, “he belongs in a psychiatric unit, not in a school. He could flip out at any moment.”

I would find out later that the pupil in question - let’s call him X - had taken to bullying a small new boy with a broken nose. Upon arrival, the new boy explained to classmates that no one was allowed to touch his face because it was still fragile. Curious to know exactly how fragile, pupil X picked the boy up by the ankles in the playground and dropped him head first on the concrete, causing his face to cave in.

But the Collège’s resident psychopath was the least of my troubles during my time as an assistant. I spent much of my eight-month tenure waging a one-man war on truancy.

The worst culprit had developed the curious habit of taking a bathroom break at 20 minutes to 12 every day and never coming back. When I brought this up with one of the English teachers, she explained he was trying to get a head start arriving on time at his 'job'.

“What do you mean?” I asked, “What job?”

“We’re pretty sure he helps his older brother sell drugs at an apartment block across town. They pay kids to sit on the couches outside and watch for the cops,” she said matter-of-factly.

It sounds like a scene straight from The Wire - but for many young people in the northern suburbs it is a daily reality, and a tempting way of making some precious extra cash.

Yet there were others determined to get out of the suburbs. Among them was Rachid, a youngster of 15 who would linger after class and try to squeeze in a few extra moments of practicing his English with me. He wanted to become a diplomat and shunned his classmates at break time to pore over Wikipedia articles on European countries.

Kids like Rachid quickly became the reason I got up in the morning and every time a troubled student picked up a new phrase or piece of vocabulary it was a major victory. 

Eight intense but rewarding months later my time in Seine-St-Denis drew to a close, as did construction work on the school’s new premises. Nearly a decade after a fire ravaged the old collége, pupils could finally learn in an environment with computer rooms, interactive whiteboards and functional central heating.

But the truly striking aspect of the new school was the gigantic sign of France’s national motto placed above its main entrance, the words 'Liberte, Egalité, Fraternité' embossed in 10-foot-high black letters.

Even for the indefatigable Mr Hammoudi, it was an irony too far.

“I don’t know why they want to put that sign up there,” he told me as we walked through the school gates on my last day as an assistant, “all it does is draw attention to the lack of equality among children in France. It’s like they put it up for a joke or something.”

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission: SThree: SThree are a global F...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Guru Careers: Marketing Compliance Assistant

£18k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Compliance Assistant to join a ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are a recent psychology graduate ...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders