This is the house that Alison built
This is the house that Alison built
Tara Guy

Tara Guy

Tara Guy is a guest writer and currently enrolled at Metropolitan State University.

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“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.”

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