N.F.L. lineman Jonathan Martin encountered a Miami Dolphins team culture that was sick at its core. But was his private-school upbringing partly responsible for his inability to cope with the locker-room bullying he encountered there?
“I figured out a major source of my anxiety,” he wrote to his mother during his ordeal, according to the 140-page report on his ordeal that an outside law firm released on Feb. 14. “I’m a push over, a people pleaser. I avoid confrontation whenever I can, I always want everyone to like me. I let people talk about me, say anything to my face, and I just take it, laugh it off, even when I know they are intentionally trying to disrespect me. I mostly blame the soft schools I went to …”
Then, in a message to his father a week later: “I suppose it’s white private school conditioning, turning the other cheek.”
These comments press all sorts of buttons for private school parents, who worry that by trying to buy their way up to what seems like a better education, they’re robbing their child of the hard knocks every kid ought to experience. By invoking race, Mr. Martin, who is African-American, seems to suggest that private-school culture stands for training or retraining students of color to be meek young adults who don’t speak up or fight back.
But what sort of softness was he talking about? And how exactly does “white private school conditioning” manifest itself?
Mr. Martin, who is 24 years old, and his parents declined to expand further on his words in the report. He attended the private John Thomas Dye School in Los Angeles for fifth and sixth grade. Ray Michaud, the headmaster there, also declined to respond to Mr. Martin’s comments, citing a school policy on talking about alumni and things they do or say after they leave.
Harvard-Westlake, which has produced many Hollywood stars and a handful of other professional athletes, was Mr. Martin’s next stop. “Harvard-Westlake simply offers our strong support for Jonathan Martin and his family during this difficult time,” its president and chief executive, Rick Commons, wrote by email. When I asked him whether his response was the very sort of other-cheek-turning that Mr. Martin described, he said that it was an “interesting follow-up” but did not comment further.
Both schools were willing to disclose some numbers in an effort to address the demographic charge specifically. At Harvard-Westlake, 19 percent of the student body receives need-based financial aid and 43 percent of students are not white. That compares favorably with national numbers that the National Association of Independent Schools tracks: Students of color make up 28 percent of the population at all private schools nationwide; 23 percent of students at member schools received need-based aid. John Thomas Dye is less diverse than average, with students of color making up 23 percent of its student body. Just 8 percent of them receive financial aid.
“Our schools are not the sort of impervious bastions of WASP culture and privilege that they were at the inception of independent schools,” said Caroline Blackwell, the vice president for equity and justice for the National Association of Independent Schools. “And so for a lot of people, they continue to have this idea that doesn’t really match the reality.”
These institutions like to be called independent schools nowadays, in part because “private” raises the question of just who they’re excluding. Independence speaks to their strengths, as they stand apart from the educational culture of test-taking and rigidity and, at their best, build close-knit communities centered around character as much as academic achievement.
Perhaps Mr. Martin was using “soft” as an antonym for “real,” as in the real world that private-school students might not encounter enough. But what would it mean for private schools to feel more real? Ms. Blackwell wondered about this, too. She is African-American and a product of private schools herself. She’s also made her career in them, working in the past as a counselor, admissions officer and multicultural affairs director, including 17 years at theUniversity School in Nashville. She ran the local human relations commission there before going to work for the independent schools association.
Ms. Blackwell wondered, as many private school parents might have when they read Mr. Martin’s words in newspaper accounts of the league’s report, whether he was calling out the sort of deliberately constructed communities that many private schools specialize in creating — built on intense attention to children’s feelings and the imprinting of values that support a commitment to civility.
Schools like that are not much like the world that many parents live and work in, where people are disposable, loyalty no longer matters much and every person is scratching away for themselves. But those mothers and fathers don’t necessarily want their 9-year-olds going to school in it. “My experience of independent schools is one where a premium is placed on problem solving in civil ways — dealing with conflict in ways that prefer conversation and discussion as opposed to fighting and aggression,” Ms. Blackwell said. “We would teach students to be assertive without necessarily being aggressive.” If she’s right, that’s hardly turning the other cheek.
It’s not clear whether that sort of teaching went on at Harvard-Westlake or John Thomas Dye, since nobody there wanted to talk about it. But Ms. Blackwell doesn’t think it’s fair to ask the product of any school to serve as proof of its educators’ success or failure if the test is to withstand what Mr. Martin did. “Preparing kids for the vitriol and hostility of a locker room, that’s not our intention,” she said. “Nor is it the intention of public schools or other types of schools, regardless of where they are, to simulate the worst sort of cultural experience to see if the kids can endure.”
If you’re a product of a private school or a parent at one, what do Mr. Martin’s words mean to you?
Ron Lieber is the Your Money columnist for The New York Times. He’s currently on leave to write “The Opposite of Spoiled,” a book about parenting, money, values and raising the kinds of children all parents want to push out into the world, no matter how much money they have. He hosts regular conversations about these topics on his Facebook page and welcomes comments here or privately, via his Web site.