Notes from Meaux-town*

Every Monday and Tuesday I wake up around 6am, get ready and head to Gare de l’Est, from which I take a train to Meaux, a small town of around 50,000 people East and slightly North of Paris. This is where I spend two days teaching English to around 14 primary-school classes of children aged anywhere from 6 to 11. Notice I say “teach”—while I have no teaching credential and am supposed to be an “assistant” who merely helps the teachers with their English lessons, offers the correct pronunciation of words, maybe plans a few activities, the program and schools themselves are highly disorganized when it comes to English and so somehow I am essentially the English teacher.

Meaux is a town with a large immigrant population and an allegedly racist mayor. Besides a vaguely quaint town center with a cathedral and a somewhat substantial reputation for Brie and mustard, there’s not a whole lot to report on. When I arrive at the train station I hop on a bus and bypass the center anyway, heading instead for the neighboring industrial zone. This is where my schools are located, surrounded by housing projects. This doesn’t have the same connotation as “the projects” in the US do, but it does feel a million miles away from Paris. More than anything, it can feel dreary and rather deserted. The teachers, not knowing that I was placed in the town by the teaching assistant program, have asked me confusedly, “but why did you choose Meaux?” Riding the bus here I feel totally anonymous, and an English title on the book I’m reading will generally get me a few looks. It’s a complete contrast to cosmopolitan life-as-spectacle Paris, and that’s one reason I’m grateful for the experience.

View of the characteristic high rises from the bus stop in Beauval, where my schools are located.

Though Meaux doesn’t feel as “cosmopolitan” as Paris, ironically my schools represent a sort of mini-multicultural utopia that Paris could only dream of coming close to. The students have more diverse origins than anywhere I’ve ever seen: North and West Africa are probably the most commonly represented, but there’s also Yemen, the Congo, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Portugal, Poland, Greece, French territories (like Martinique, Réunion, and French Guyana), Romania, China…and that list probably doesn’t even cover it. One lesson the kids loved was learning how to pronounce these countries in English.

Early on the principals made continual reference to how these were “difficult” schools with “difficult” children.  I don’t think it’s any kind of Dangerous Minds situation and I’m in a primary school for God’s sake, but after the first day I certainly did feel like I had my work cut out for me. (It’s not really like this either, but sometimes it kind of is.) Seeing as I was told by my program that I was not allowed to be alone with students, on my first day I was promptly left alone with students all day: no lesson plan, no disciplinary bag of tricks. Though it’s generally not difficult for me to remember what it was like to go to school as a seven-year old, I definitely did not remember having this much…energy. All day long, the kids talked incessantly, to each other, over each other, to me, to nobody, they raised their hands enthusiastically and yelled things out even if I hadn’t called on them, they pushed each other, and they complained that the student next to them had pushed them/squished their finger/said that they were mean. I soon found that even the arrangement of furniture in the classroom was crucial—if they sit behind a table that isn’t bolted to the ground, they push it back and forth noisily for the entire class. Since I don’t want to rely on the typical French methods of discipline that involve yelling and/or sending kids to stand in the corner, I’m lucky that sending a kid back to their teacher and missing English is seen as a viable punishment (though it’s probably more that they like the break from their  undoubtedly much stricter teacher). I’ve gotten the hang of it all more now, or at least am more used to it, though it’s still absolutely exhausting. I usually don’t even have the energy to get annoyed, and sometimes I just pause and bask in the utter chaos of the classroom, before attempting a deep breath and another try.

For the first couple of months I was primarily trying to figure out what on Earth I was supposed to be doing. The program I’m partaking in is through the French government and places Anglophone assistants in schools all over France. Naturally, most schools didn’t find out they were getting such assistants until the week before we all showed up ready to “assist.” We were vaguely told what we were going to be doing but weren’t entirely sure, and well, as it turned out our schools didn’t have a clue either. Whereas in a high school I imagine there is one English teacher who probably knows more or less what they’re doing, in primary schools it is up to each teacher to teach English to their classes. In my schools (which are right next door to each other and thus share a lot), the teachers barely speak English themselves, and so their immediate assumption when I came along was that as a native speaker I am an expert in language education and therefore there is no point in them even trying to do English with their students, ever. Voilà…I see each kid for 30 minutes once a week and for most of them, that’s all the English they’re getting.

So of course it’s a little frustrating to think that these kids’ entire learning of English this year is dependent on me…but because I see them so rarely it’s also hard to feel fully attached or care. The smallest kids are not really required to learn English yet so for them it is nice that they can already start to learn basic things and even get “ahead.” The oldest ones, though, are supposed to pass a test at the end of the year and at this point I can hardly see how they would pass it. In our assistant training we were given all these activities that would “only be suitable for older kids” because they were more advanced…well all of that was basically useless because I (and the other assistants I’ve talked to) came to realize immediately that the older classes’ English level was nowhere near where it was supposed to be. In most cases they were not much more advanced than kids three grades below them. I suppose it’s better than nothing, though. Every French person I have told about my job has referenced notoriously-bad English education in France and has thus seemed to view what I’m doing favorably.

View from inside the school's window. That's one of my favorite kids on the bench--I have to actually get pictures of their faces one day.

Though I know I’ve certainly taught the students a few things, I’ve had to mainly think about my presence in the schools as more of a cultural exchange that will help, you know, broaden their horizons and such. I was the first person most of them had met who had come from an English-speaking country and who had learned French as a second language, and so from the beginning I was this constant source of fascination. At first hearing me speak English elicited laughs from them, and I could barely get through a couple of my first classes because everyone was utterly mystified and thus giggling nervously and excitedly anytime I spoke. And though I generally consider my pronunciation in French to be pretty good (as I do have to speak French with the kids here and there), they would find my VAGUE miss pronunciation of a word in French to be supremely hilarious…just a little discouraging. But to this day I’m like a celebrity in the halls, with every child yelling my name in their cute French accents immediately upon seeing me, even if I’m a block away from the school and barely even within shouting distance. It certainly beats how I’d be treated in a lycée, where from what I’ve heard the students only take a break from texting their friends to give you an occasional annoyed sigh.

I firmly believe in the importance of acquiring (at least) a second language, I can’t say I’m all that attached to the English language. Though I’m grateful for the fact that it’s my first language, it’s still strange having to take on the role of someone who is extremely enthusiastic about teaching it. I don’t want to serve as a representative of Americans or Anglophones, but that’s inherently what I am in the minds of my students. It’s also difficult spending so little time with them—sometimes I really just want to hang out with them but speak in French, and observe all the funny things they say in their own language. In trying to learn English, I mostly just hear exclamations of “c’est dur, l’anglais!” (“English is hard!”) I will admit, however, that it did make me really happy when one kid exclaimed, upon learning a new phrase, “oh, j’adore l’anglais!”

That’s probably the closest I’ll come to experiencing the perks of being a teacher—though there are other moments of feeling victorious, and others still of writing on the blackboard and posing a question to the class and catching myself almost enjoying it all. What’s for sure, I’ve definitely come to fully appreciate the value of teachers and have observed the incredible amount of energy and effort that they put into their jobs. I do it twice a week, I cannot imagine doing it every day. It makes my blood boil to think how little they are paid for such an important job (in France as well as in the US). Another reason I am grateful for this experience—to gain a glimpse of what it is like to try to impart knowledge on a classroom full of children who are each as different as the next.

And most of all there is, as I mentioned, the fact of experiencing a city I would never have visited otherwise. Despite its grandiosity, Paris can hardly be representative of the whole of France. Chatting with teachers over lunch about small-town and national politics has been wholly eye-opening. I like waiting at the bus stop and observing the sense of community in the neighborhood as friends run into each other and chat away, in French or Arabic or otherwise. It’s seems entirely random that I ended up there, but lucky that I like all the teachers and the kids (even if I don’t always like having to teach them things). It’s a strange little town, Meaux, but I’m sorta fond of it sometimes.

*Coined by my friend and fellow assistant Alexa, this term is both clever and helps with the correct pronunciation of “Meaux.”

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