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.”

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
The Swiss Re tower or 'Gherkin' was at one time the UK’s most expensive office when German bank IVG and private equity firm Evans Randall bought it
news
Sport
Moeen Ali wearing the 'Save Gaza' and 'Free Palestine' wristbands on his left arm
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tv
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Battle of the Five Armies trailer released
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Extras
indybest
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
Life and Style
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Project Manager,Conduct Risk,London,£5-600pd

£500 - £600 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

C# Developer (LINQ, HTML5, CSS3, JS, SQL) London - Finance

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Graduate Content Marketing Executive / Social Media Executive

Internship / Travel & Expenses Paid: Guru Careers: An ambitious and adaptable ...

Email Campaign Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£20 - 24k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a passionate and motivated Email Campa...

Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on