“It’s been a great joy for me to be here. It’s been the heart and soul of my teaching,“ said Creative Writing Professor Alison McGhee of her career at Metropolitan State. She will retire at the end of the fall semester, capping 28 years of teaching and advising Metro State students.
During those years, McGhee has amassed a loyal and devoted following among her students. Many remain in touch with her, years after leaving her classroom.
McGhee released her latest children’s novel, “Pablo and Birdy,” at the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul on August 23. Her students, as always, were in the audience. Some from her current crop of fledgling writers, but also several from her early years of teaching, there with their children in tow. A happy little reunion ensued, bearing out an elemental truth about McGhee’s years of teaching and mentoring. For her students, McGhee is unforgettable.
As the founder of Metro State’s highly respected Creative Writing program, McGhee has developed the program into one of the largest departments of the university. It currently attracts over 100 majors and minors.
Students call McGhee their cheerleader, counselor, believer, mentor, confessor — even “Yoda.” When asked recently to describe McGhee, Creative Writing major Sarah Fjellanger asked laughingly, “You mean other than ‘she walks on water’?”
Fjellanger spoke warmly of McGhee’s quiet affirmation and nurturing way with her aspiring writers. “She allows us to dream, never doubting we can make it happen too. Everyone should have an Alison in their life.”
The welcoming space McGhee creates in her classroom is deeply meaningful for her students, especially in the context of today’s vitriolic political climate and strident social discourse. “I felt like she always created a safe place to openly share my ideas without fear of judgment,” said recent graduate Desiree Weins. “Alison always unearthed the hidden gems in my writing.”
Colleague and writing instructor Suzanne Nielsen agrees, saying of McGhee, “In a country under intense strife it is hopeful to know that people like Alison not only exist, but reach out and make the world a better place.”
What happens in the crucible of McGhee’s classroom can be very powerful. Those who have taken her classes have witnessed raw emotion, and always laughter and tears. Her students’ self-exploration through writing often causes personal epiphanies, and the resulting revelations can be very intense.
“So often over the years I’ve seen someone’s face look so surprised after they read their piece to the class, and they say, ‘I’ve never told anyone that before!’ It’s exhausting — but exhilarating too,” McGhee said.
Born and raised in upstate New York, McGhee attended Middlebury College in the northeast. “I went to a very exclusive little college in Vermont,” she explains, “but I grew up blue-collar, rural, and I never wanted to teach in a place like that.”
Metro State has been McGhee’s home since she first arrived in 1989 to teach Introduction to Chinese, her undergraduate field of study. She was pregnant and nauseated that first year of teaching. “Every time the class took a break, I’d go throw up and then drag myself back to class,” she said.
“I was a very young woman when I started teaching here, and now I’m middle-aged. Metro has been such a huge part of the heart of my adult life,” McGhee said. “I always go back to my students. I love my students. I’ve always wanted to teach the kind of people I grew up with…and I found that at Metro. It’s the only kind of student I ever wanted.”
It’s not only her students that hold McGhee in high regard, but her colleagues as well. Suzanne Nielsen studied under McGhee after her own return to college in 1995. After a difficult period of loss in her life, and feeling fragile in her newfound recovery from addiction, she was timid when she entered McGhee’s classroom.
“Her ability to encourage me to grow and find my voice saved my soul. She taught me to hold my head up, and to look others in the eye. My life is so much richer because of her belief in me,” said Nielsen.
Another colleague, writing professor Patricia Hoolihan concurs. “It has been an honor to call Alison a colleague of mine. Her support over the years of my own teaching has been invaluable; she is insightful and wise…her influence will continue on through the many students she has encouraged and inspired.”
There’s also the hard-to-ignore fact of McGhee’s extraordinary commercial success. As a New York Times best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize nominee, hers is a vast and varied bibliography of children’s, young adult and adult literature.
In addition to “Pablo and Birdy,” McGhee published a children’s picture book entitled “Percy, Dog of Destiny” earlier this spring. October will see the publication of a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-nominated adult novel “Shadow Baby.” “Never Coming Back” marks the return of Clara, a character adored by many of her readers, and sometimes referred to as McGhee’s alter ego. The book launch is Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. at Open Book in Minneapolis.
The outward trappings of commercial success might be evident in the literary prizes and awards McGhee has received — if she displayed them on her walls and shelves. But she doesn’t. While thankful for success, she seems indifferent to the visible symbols of it. “I forget about them pretty much right after they are awarded,” she said.
It is not the critical acclaim or the financial reward that matters most to McGhee. “I’ll tell you what really matters, and that is a letter from someone who loved one of my books, and who says that it made them feel as though they weren’t alone,” she said.
Hers is a gentle ethic. In a recent blog post at alisonmcghee.com, McGhee wrote: “This is one version of an ongoing prayer that unreligious me invokes before I walk into the door of every classroom I teach… Please help me be a good teacher today. Please help me bring kindness and clarity and joy. Please help me heal and never hurt…. Every moment of every day you can bring people down or you can lift them up — you, one small person — by the energy you project. We choose what we want our lives to mean, and what we want to leave behind. We have the power to write our own stories. Remember that.”
McGhee’s readers, friends, colleagues and students will never forget her lessons. When asked what she most hopes to be remembered for, McGhee answers simply: “That I was kind.”