This is the house that Alison built

You are currently viewing This is the house that Alison built
Photo by Jim Gehrz
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email
Share on print

“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 alison​m​cghee​.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.”