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The same old story

I love the stories of my Year 7s. They have a knack for description but no sense of narrative, which is largely down to me. Worksheets on structural cohesion take careful planning, whereas you can make up tasks on adjectives as you cross the yard. My all-time favourite "Oh God I've forgotten a starter" activity is to get the children to come up with a describing word for each letter of the alphabet. Hence my class can string adjectives together like Jubilee bunting, but they are stumped when it comes to tying up beginnings, middles and ends.

They haven't yet twigged that narratives need a controlling idea. Their stories are as random as a TK Maxx clearance rail: verb tenses yo-yo from past to present, the narrative voice switches from "I" to "he" and the action flits from place to place. Their stories do, however, share some common traits: some desultory reference to time, weather and a pool of blood; a "disgusting" smell that "crawls up" someone's nostrils; a tramp in a tatty suit with a rasping voice; an AK-47 or a knock-off Twilight vampire with glistening skin. Plus they cobble the whole thing together with so many torturous similes that they should be banned from using figurative language until they've learned to drive. But the main problem with their stories is that they are an arbitrary collection of observations glued together with the connectives: afterwards, as and then.

Narratives need cohesion. Even that paradigm of shapelessness, Ulysses, was driven by Homer's Odyssey. I am indebted to Wikipedia for this fact since I twice abandoned the novel some 20 pages in for Jilly Cooper's Riders. But whether our taste is for racy equine romcom or erudite Irish twaddle, we still rely on the author's conscious crafting to help us make sense of the world.

In real life, too, we're desperate for cohesion. We want a clear set of values to define who we are and where we're going; otherwise our narrative worlds collapse. For example, our controlling idea about teenagers is that they hang around public spaces with their waistbands round their knees before going to university to read history and The Guardian and accrue unfathomable debt. The narrative arc for ambitious male teachers has them writing blogs, plugging them on Twitter and then frantically tossing each other off in an orgy of symbiotic adulation. It goes without saying that the chapter on middle-aged women finds them sitting alone in their kitchens, finishing off value chicken pies and writing weekly columns.

If I sound more cynical than usual it's because I've lost my plot. Since my son's graduation I'm no longer sure who I am. For the past 20 years I've defined myself through motherhood. It's the easy option: you're never dogged by debilitating introspection when you're busy making packed lunches or hoovering under the beds. And because what you do is dictated by necessity rather than desire, motherhood is a guilt-free pleasure. Whether we're bazooka-ing someone's verruca or pressing a glass to their rash to check for septicaemia, mothers are vital, valued, loved.

But now that chapter is over and the rest of my story looks bleak. If I follow the plot line of the average empty-nester, I'll soon be drooling over Monty Don's perennials and avoiding drinking tea at night in case I wet the bed. And, like a superannuated Year 7, I'll talk about the weather, the passage of time and whether Clarins Night Rejuvenating Cream will give me translucent skin.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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