Mike Nagler

I once had a student in a fiction writing class who was living in her car. I found out about this by chance when she told me that the reason she’d missed the previous week was because her car had been towed from a parking lot outside a local gym, and it had taken time to eventually get it back.

This student rarely was absent and always sat in the front row. Her stories were about a harrowing childhood and a mostly homeless adulthood.

“No one else can put my words down with the dignity they deserve,” she said to me one night after class. “My life is one of the few things I own.”

For a couple of years after this she’d occasionally send me a story to read, then I never heard from her again. And though this all happened a long time ago, I can still remember, as I drove home from class that night, how our conversation got me thinking about the power of words, about learning the alphabet in elementary school, and how we’ve come to use it as adults.

How tacked above every classroom’s chalkboard were green cardboard placards of the letters of the alphabet, symbols designed to teach us to communicate with one another. Though what was written on the chalkboard itself might appear one hour and be erased by the teacher the next, those letters were always there from the beginning of the school year to the end. They were never removed.

Of course, they were there to teach and guide us in our handwriting. But, what I didn’t know then, but realized after I listened to my student, was they were also there to lend dignity to our lives. Those 26 letters looked down upon the 30 of us from their lordly perch above the chalkboard because they were giving us an opportunity: the opportunity to shape them into words that might help, in the years ahead, to diminish the distance between us. That is the virtue of letters; of language. Their task, surely, was to help us reach out to each other, not to increase our isolation and fear of one another.

One of my sadnesses about our current lives as American citizens is that the alphabet we once learned has been taken over by a new alphabet. An alphabet that has cannibalized our own to divide and conquer us.

I believe our dignity as a people is often defined by the words we use to describe the life of our nation and those of us who live here. Do we use words that acknowledge and include the many different stories we have to tell, which are at the very heart of an enduring democracy? Or do we create, from these differences, a new, darker alphabet, in which a true democracy can only cease to exist?

Soon, a bronze plaque will be mounted at the entrance to the Burlingame Library.

“Welcome,” it will read. “All sizes, colors, and cultures, all sexes, beliefs, religions and types: all people-safe here.”

One of the truths these words sadly infer and that the plaque’s existence comments upon, is that as we’ve become a more diverse nation, we’ve become ever more divided. But what must be recovered — the alphabet that lends dignity to us as a democracy — are words such as these. Words that dignify us as citizens because they’re not only a bulwark against what divides us, but, also, the hallmark of a civil society.

This is the alphabet of justice, equality and connection. It’s the alphabet where people of many different voices come together in safety. Where no one gets left behind and where our government institutions exist as instruments of good for all, regardless of the birthplace of our heritage or the contrasting arcs of our lives.

This language, however, will not be easy to recover.

Michelle Obama has said: “For me, when you’re a public figure in power, everything you do models what you want the country to do.”

But, while there’s a new president for the country to model, the toxicity of the words we’ve been governed by the last several years will not easily be overcome. The myriad possibilities of our democracy’s alphabet and how we use those possibilities, for good or ill, lie unknown before us. The writer Rebecca Solnit speaks to this when she says that voting is a chess move, not a Valentine. Our country has only taken a first step toward its more honorable self. Difficult work lies on the path ahead.

But what we’ve lived with in our most recent past cannot be our new language.

In the coming years, that language must be fought for and won back.

Mike Nagler is a trustee on the Burlingame Library Board.

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(17) comments

Wilfred Fernandez Jr

Hello Mr. Nagler,

Your thinking mirrors a man that helped me when I lived on the street. It's comfortable and nice. If you want to see what people like me, a Trump supporter, can expect from the President elect, read the following quote.

In a free society, government reflects the soul of its people. If people want change at the top, they will have to live in different ways. Our major social problems are not the cause of our decadence. They are a reflection of it.

Cal Thomas

Now, if you agree with me that the quote has merit, peruse the most populated comments found in the Letters to the Editor. Find and read the comments of those that oppose people of my ilk. I aver this kind of thinking was not born in the last four years and portends more undignified conflict. Further, I proffer President Obama's attempted transformation of this country created the Tea Party which President Trump transformed into the MAGA crowd. Perhaps we are nothing more than simply the remnants of the President Nixon's silent majority. In the end, I think intellectual conflict is healthy and culminates in the betterment of our society. I prefer where we are now, much more than when I protested for civil rights the sixties. Unless you think like those believing "it's my way or the highway", I suspect you do to. Methinks what may possibly need dignity is media and academia. Politicos will naturally change, as Cal Tomas wisely asserted. Perhaps a bit more tradition is in order.

Ray Fowler

Thanks, Mike

I enjoyed reading about your former student. I hope she continued with her writing.

The plaque. I hope the readers adding their thoughts to this discussion agree that everyone should be welcomed to the table. The plaque's inscription gives us such hope... with one exception. Yes.. all colors, backgrounds, beliefs and the like should be welcome but what about adding diversity of thought to the list? Many... probably millions... of voters who supported the Republican ticket only two weeks ago would not openly declare their affiliation for fear of being labeled a racist. Now, politicos on the left are calling for retribution and punishment of Republican officials. Whatever happened to "when they go low, we go high"?

Our country is not a racist country. Progressives and some liberals who only know how to play the identity politics card should be ashamed of themselves. With the release of his new book, former president Barack Obama has joined their ranks. He said Americans were "spooked" because a black man was in the White House and the result was Donald Trump's election. Yeah... our country is so racist that it elected an African American to the highest office in the land. Twice. The 2016 election was not a racist statement; it was a repudiation of the Democratic Party's agenda.

Racist country? Anyone who believes that has taken the green alphabet placards described by Mike in his op-ed piece and combined them in a way that belies the truth. Cindy mentioned the civil rights movement in her comments. Could you make the argument that the country was systemically racist in the 1960s? Absolutely! Today? Not so much. In the sixties, interracial marriage was prohibited, voting by blacks was not just suppressed... it was not allowed, there was clearly segregation even though Brown vs. Board had been decided 10 years earlier. I am not naive enough to accept that everything now is hunky dory... there is still much work to be done... but do we live in that same 1960s racist world, today?

Do a little research. Check out "most racist countries" in the world and look for the USA on the list. Then please explain, if this country is so racist, why do millions of persons of color want to emigrate to the US.

Finally, our state's governor is tasked with appointing a replacement for vice president-elect Harris. BLM has demanded that he fill the spot with a black woman. According to them, this demand is not negotiable. It cannot be a Hispanic. It cannot be a person of Asian heritage. It cannot be a man. It has to be a black woman. While I'm sure a lot of Californians would like to see the best qualified person appointed to the Senate, identity politics will dictate who Mr. Newsom selects.

Dirk van Ulden

Correction : Mike was on a roll until he came up with the "superior" Michelle Obama. She defies the dignity concept and she proved it again recently when she mentioned that all of those who voted for Trump are racists, etc. When will she ever shut up and vanish?



What she meant to say was that not all people that voted for Trump were racist, but all racists voted for Trump. When will Trump shut up and vanish?

Terence Y

There goes Taffy Dave, thinking he can read minds, trying to do damage control. But it’s too late, everyone knows Democrats are the party of the KKK, regardless of Taffy's Republican turned Democrat party switcheroo nonsense.

Cindy Cornell

Another beautiful and thoughtful piece by Mike Nagler. I believe our country has always been diverse, but not all people were given a chance for their words, their dignity, to be included or encouraged in the American conversation. It has only begun to emerge as a result of people battling to be seen and heard via the civil rights movements We are all better off and more enlightened by the inclusion of all voices. The willful ignorance and resistance of many will not prevail through generational change. The words of the oppressed, women, gay people, people of color, the poor, are the genie that has been let out of the bottle and there's no putting them back.

Dirk van Ulden

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Another predictable Cindy reaction. As long as it is anti Trump it is good.

Terence Y

Well, Mr. Nagler, if you can convince the lamestream media to set an example… Other questions… So who is paying for the bronze plaque? It seems a waste of money to state the obvious. What’s next, “The Earth revolves around the Sun.”? “All Lives Matter”? I’ll pay for those – just promise to mount it at the entrance to the library. And why would we listen to Michelle Obama? She’s been just as divisive as her husband, the worst President in the history of the US. BTW, Mr. Nagler, the election is not over. If it ends up being Biden, you want us to model him? So we should not complete a thought? Confuse our wife with our sister? Wander around and mutter to ourselves?



I am sure Christopher Conway is smiling from ear to ear. You have done a great job of being the first to comment every day and spew your hatred for America and your fellow man. The first to try and belittle the letter writer. The first to bring up racism and and blame everyone else for it rather than your white supremacist dictator wannabe president. The first to show the readers of the DJ that you can even one-up Trump when it comes to being childish and immature. No doubt about it, you have made Christopher happy.

Terence Y

Wow, it’s before noon and Taffy Dave is melting. Taffy sees racism where it doesn’t exist – in an Oreo cookie, a black hole, newsprint, etc. and tries to insert racism into the conversation, whether related or not. He then goes on a childish, name-calling, and immature rant. BTW, thanks for the compliment in comparing me with the great, Mr. Conway. I see his disappearance has deprived you of another conduit for your hate-filled responses.



I see you still haven't found a mirror or if you did you don't know how to use it.

Tommy Tee

Terence says other people go on childish, name-calling, immature rants. Classic! Love it.

Terence Y

Poor Taffy and Tommy. Seems they like to dish it out but can’t take it when it’s returned. Sorry boys, I don’t follow your Democrat “good for thee, but not for me” nonsense. I’ve said a number of times that as soon as you stop the name calling, I’ll happily return the favor.

Dirk van Ulden

Mike was on a roll until he came up inevitably with the superior Michelle Obama. She is defies the dignity concept and she proved it again recently when she mentioned that all of those who voted for Trump are racists, etc. When will she ever shut up and vanish?

Tommy Tee

Dirk--she still out-classes Melania and her nude photos.

Terence Y

Actually, Tommy, she doesn’t.

Dirk van Ulden

Sorry Tommy, Michelle O and classy, in the same sentence? You have got to be kidding.

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