Many years ago when I was a graduate student studying history in Chicago, one of my classmates was a corn farmer from Iowa. I’m a city kid, and I had never met a corn farmer before -- or maybe any farmer, for that matter. I was a little perplexed by this combination of graduate student and farmer, so I asked a lot of questions, and we got to be friends. At one point he asked me if I knew why crops viewed from above appeared to be in circular rather than rectangular or square fields. Any of you who have flown on a plane and looked down over agricultural fields have seen this. I thought for a moment, had an image of sprinklers, and guessed that it may be because crops are watered in circular patterns. He said that was correct, and he was as surprised by my reply as I was.
I hadn’t thought about that conversation from many years ago until I recently heard a Lutheran minister named Nadia Bolz-Weber on the radio talking about a book she had just written. She recalled flying over the Midwest, looking down at the circular crop patterns, and thinking that it seemed dumb that farmers would only water their crops in circles while the rest of the field was dry and unnourished. That seemed like a waste. So, why does this happen? These crop circles are created by a hydration method called center pivot irrigation, invented in 1940 by a Colorado farmer named Frank Zybach. He worked on the design, got a patent, and by the 1950s, he created a successful business that led to the global adoption of this new technology. The circular irrigation pattern nourished crops that were in the circle. Those on the outside withered and died, or they were not planted at all. It wasn’t intentional, not malicious, but part of a bigger system and certainly consequential for the crops that were on the outside and not the inside. The minister went on to see the analogy between circular crops and other parts of our lives. She reflected on how we live at various times and places inside or outside of circles that are nourished or neglected. Sometimes we feel like we are on the inside. Sometimes we feel like we are on the outside. We often don’t know why. Like center pivot irrigation, it may be because of some system put in place long ago by someone or something we don’t know, and we just know that it’s always been that way. She talked about how her life had been shaped by feeling inside and outside.
That led me to think about what it was like for me when I was growing up. Seventh-graders heard me talk about this. I was born in Korea and arrived in Los Angeles when I was four years old. I didn’t know any English but fortunately for me in the immigrant neighborhood where we lived, most people also had to learn English, so I kind of fit in. I remember having friends, liking school, and had thoughts about running for sixth-grade class president. When you feel like you are on the inside, you start thinking optimistically about things that you can do.
At the same time, my family was doing better financially so in the summer between fifth and sixth grade, we moved out of our small apartment in L.A., and I found myself a new sixth-grader at a school in the suburb of Buena Park, California. If you are wondering where that is, think of going to Disneyland, and if you miss your exit, you end up in Buena Park. I was the new kid in a K-6, so most of the students had known each other for many years and had already established their friendships. I was also one of the few Asian kids in school and the only Asian in my neighborhood.
I remember vividly what it felt like to be the new kid and the new kid who didn’t look like all the other kids, who didn’t eat the same food as other kids, and whose parents spoke poor English. The first day of sixth grade, I had that dreaded moment of walking into the school cafeteria, carrying my tray of food, and not knowing where to sit. I saw a few guys from my morning class, and I went over to join them. As I began to sit down, one of them called me a racist name and told me I couldn’t sit there. The experience was too painful for me to talk about, even with my older sisters, and I noticed that my sisters rarely wanted to have their friends visit our house because they felt embarrassed. Our house smelled funny, we ate with chopsticks, and our furniture was unsightly, though I’m not sure if that was an Asian immigrant thing or just poor taste. In any case, for the first time, I was on the outside but I didn’t know why. By high school - and by all appearances - things were better. I was not the best student but I was okay. I had success in sports. I was elected to student government and wrote for the school newspaper. By most measures I was doing fine. The high school system’s version of center pivot irrigation worked for me during school hours when we were in class, at water polo practice, or laying out the school paper. Life away from school—the dances, the parties, the places the cool kids hung out—I was definitely on the outside. I was fortunate that we didn’t have social media back then. I knew some other kids were having fun and I wasn’t invited, but at least I didn’t have to get Instagram posts to prove it.
Looking back, I realize better now that all of us want a sense of belonging and that all of us harbor insecurities and uncertainties, and that mostly we may feel included, but in some circumstances we don’t. While I have strong memories of being on the margins, I suspect many of my classmates would be surprised that I felt that way. When you are a teenager, when you are feeling this way, it can feel like you are the only one having this experience, that everyone else is on the inside, and when you do feel like you are on the inside, you are trying really hard to stay there. There was a recent series of Daily Urinal posts on standardized exams, extended-time testing, and learning differences that I found honest, revealing, and courageous. One of the themes of those posts was a reminder of the invisible and systematic ways that people in our community can feel marginalized. For some of you, maybe these feelings arise because of a learning difference. For others, it may be about physical ability, gender, gender identity, sexual preference, family structure, family wealth, national origin, race, ethnicity, religion, academic performance, or psychological struggles. There may be a voice in your head that asks, “Am I too much or not enough of something?” We all wonder these things. We all have moments where we feel like we are on the outside looking in, even when others don’t see it.
When we talk about the Episcopal value of inclusion and of being an inclusive school, this is one of the things that I think about. We are all sometimes within the system that nourishes us and sometimes there is a part of us that is outside. Some of us feel this more often than others, but all of us experience it sometimes. These experiences can be blessings, illuminating and human moments that connect us to everyone who feels at times vulnerable and humbled. Some of my personal painful experiences have probably made me a more empathetic person and a better educator.
Because we all feel at times like we are on the outside, when we talk about inclusion, we are not talking about some of you but all of you. Unlike center pivot irrigation, we can do something to change how each of us experiences this place. We are not just captive to a system that is immune to our actions. We can take collective responsibility to see when someone is not being nourished, when some are supported and others have been neglected. We can ask, “Have I included or excluded someone? Have I reached out or pushed out? Do I use social media to invite others in or to make others feel left out?” The beauty of a community is that the best way to feel like you are on the inside and being nourished is to bring others in and make sure that they also feel belonging.
What I ask is for each one of us to be committed to being the person who brings others into the circle, not the one who helps to keep someone out. If each one of us does that, then we will get ever closer to being the kind and inclusive community that we hope to be.
The Bishop’s School is an independent, coeducational college-preparatory day school for students in grades six through twelve who live throughout San Diego County. Founded in 1909, the School is affiliated with the Episcopal church.