The following remarks were shared by Shattuck-St. Mary’s Upper School Director Matt Cavellier during Chapel on Tuesday, November 8.
In the spirit of election day and the game show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” I’d like to begin by polling the audience. Who here has heard the idiom, “Take it or leave it?”
All right. Can someone tell me what it means? Quite often it is meant to signal the last step in a negotiation—it indicates that the person speaking is willing to go no further, give up no more. Usually this phrase is preceded by something like, “This is my final offer,” which implies that the previous offers were not quite enough. This one, then, is meant to be just a bit better, but still not necessarily sufficient. On the surface, it looks like it is an option because of course you can either take it, or leave it; however, when these words are uttered, it means that the negotiating has come to an end. The person uttering those words: “Take it or leave it” is exercising his or her power and taking control. The person uttering those words is removing the listener’s agency by presenting the options as a binary. Take it, or leave it.
Every morning when I walk in to my office I follow the same routine—I say good morning to Ms. Ceplecha, turn the lock to the right, and glance at the pink square taped to the doorframe. On that pink square is a quote, and even though I don’t actually read it every morning, seeing that square reminds me of words that I have memorized—words that I hope to internalize. It is a quote by James Baldwin—one of the greatest writers and intellectuals in American history—who grew up black and gay at a time in American history when it wasn’t okay to be black and it certainly wasn’t okay to be gay. The quote reads: “The world is before you, and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.” Baldwin grew up at a time when, as a gay black man, he was expected to suffer the injustices heaped upon him (take it) or move somewhere else (leave it). Baldwin knew that even in a democratic society—even in a humane world—the options presented didn’t always allow for agency. In fact, for some segments of the population, options are often designed specifically to remove or deny agency.
That’s what makes Baldwin’s twist on the old idiom important: “The world is before you, and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.” Baldwin’s words are empowering. They remind us that there are going to be times when we find ourselves in a situation that is not right—when we find ourselves in a situation where the one who has all the power and control is telling us we can take it or leave it. His words also remind us that there are other options besides those presented. There is a way to wrest back agency, to voice alternative opinions, to challenge the dominant discourse—and that is by taking action.
Today that action might be standing up to friends who are mistreating a fellow student at the risk of facing their criticism. Tomorrow it might be voting your conscience against your parents’ or peer group’s wishes. Either way, what Baldwin’s words remind us—remind me—is that it is our responsibility to challenge those who treat other people poorly. It is our responsibility to work to change—through voting, boycotting, peaceful protesting, etc.—laws that do not benefit everyone equally. What we cannot forget, what we cannot not choose to do, is to act.