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.
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.
Continue reading “Notes from Meaux-town*”