At The Crossroads: The Captain/Savior Complex or Making A Difference?

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” – Unknown


“Ducks quack and complain while eagles soar high and above.  So, soar like an eagle and stop quacking like a duck.” – Chinese proverb


“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else.  If you have some power, your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”

Toni Morrison, Author & Recipient, Nobel Prize for Literature (1993)


“Appreciate every step you are walking in your journey.  Even if it’s not where you want to be.  Every step has its purpose.” -The Mind’s Journal

Dear Dr. Kane,

I am writing to you out of frustration.  I am a Black Teaching intern at a high school in Tacoma, Washington, in the Puget Sound region of the Pacific Northwest.  I teach in a behavior-focused class consisting of mostly African American males, Latino males, and a few White males.  The school feels like a precursor to the prison system with the students acting as inmates, running the institution.   Although there is a dress code, a behavioral code, and a code regarding the use of cell phones in school… all of this is ignored by the students and not regulated or directed by the faculty or administration.   

Daily, I see young girls dressed inappropriately, students smoking weed in the parking lot during the day, students being destructive in the back of the classroom, and using their cell phones in the classroom either texting their friends or playing video games, all of this being ignored by the teachers. I also run the study hall for the football players after school, which is just a place for the students to cut up, talk loudly and do anything but study and focus on their schoolwork.

I am very concerned about the school-to-prison pipeline.  When I talk to the students about this issue and  about preparing to go to college, they ignore me and laugh. However, when I look at these young men, I see me.   When I was their ages, I remember having Mr. Bates, a Black teacher, inspire me, stay on me, encourage, and support me.  He gave back to his community and here I am, wanting to do the same.  I want to help uplift these young people. Yet every day, I arrive at school energized and I leave at the end of the day feeling defeated.

Recently, our school sent a contingent of Black students to a student event focusing on Black leadership of the future, focusing on leaders in the field of sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  While the other three high schools in the district contributed 225 students combined, my school sent only 7 students, and of the 7, all were young women!  The students from other schools provided a display of projects completed at their home schools during Black History Month, where my school administration waited three days into Black History Month before acknowledging it, and none of the faculty created any activities to honor the significance of Black achievements. Even though the faculty knew about the students attending the STEM event, nothing was done to assist or prepare the students for the event.  They went to the event empty handed, and I was so disappointed.

It is unclear to me whether the administration and the faculty understand the significance of Black History Month or how at risk these kids really are.  I spend my time focusing on the most vulnerable of them, doing what Mr. Bates did for me so long ago. I spent countless hours mentoring, encouraging, and supporting one of these students, who I will call Steven, in hopes of improving his grades so that he would have the chance to be, like me, the first one in his family to attend college.

One day, he passed by me as I returned to class from lunch, and I was almost floored by the strong smell of weed arising directly from him.  He tried to speak to me, and I turned away, telling him to go to his seat.  I was so disappointed in him.  I was in the process of writing to my dean at an all-Black Male college, urging that that they take him, but I’m not sure I want to advocate for him now.  I really wanted this for him.  I feel like a fool.

My time as a teaching intern is ending soon, and I will soon earn my teaching credentials, which will allow me to lead my own classroom.  However, I am having second thoughts as to whether I should continue to go in this direction.  I don’t feel that my efforts are valued by the students, the parents are unresponsive, and the administration and faculty remain silent in the face of what is clearly young Black people being set up to fail in early adulthood.

I don’t know whether the school administration is even aware of these issues.  In fact, the school will be graduating 400 Black students this year and 70% of them now have failing grades.

Recently, I was contacted by a recruiter from a global technology firm, suggesting that my skill sets would work well for their industry.  The financial package and incentives offered is almost three times what I would make starting out as a teacher.  I am confused as to what I should do. Regardless of where I go in my decision, I want to continue to serve as a mentor to Black students.  Can you offer me some advice?  Should I consider talking to a counselor?  I know I have unresolved issues from my own childhood and adolescence that is holding me back. 

Confused & Stuck

Tacoma, WA

My Dear Young Man,

In your words, I see a young man committed to his community and to assist others less fortunate. You are committed to mentoring and preparing these young people for the realities facing them in the adult world and to help them avoid the fate of the school to prison pipeline, and this is being frustrated by the inaction of your school administration and faculty.

The urgency you feel about the school-to-prison pipeline is warranted. Three out of four young black men have served time in prison, and as many as 80% of young African American men in the US today have criminal records that will subject them to legal discrimination for the rest of their lives.

In your writing you speak highly of your former teacher and mentor Mr. Bates.  You also spoke of your intense disappointment in Steven’s decision to smoke cannabis during the lunch break, making you reconsider recommending him for the college you attended.

Although your signature line ends with Confused & Stuck, it is apparent that instead of being confused, you are conflicted in your desire to serve the community you come from and balancing both with your concerns/fears for the students under your purview, while wanting to pursue and maintain your own mental health and happiness.  

Understanding your commitment to your community and mentoring Black students, your frustrations are magnified in your inability to get others to see the danger ahead: 

  • What makes them oblivious to the danger that you see?
  • Or maybe because of their age and inexperience, they are unable to see?
  • Is it my role as an adult to get them to see what I see?
  • Do I continue to push, implore, and demand that they listen to me?
  • What am I doing wrong?

Let’s respond to the last question first:  “What am I doing wrong?” The issue here is the Captain/Savior Complex.  This is where a person, the Captain/Savior, saves another from danger and expects to be regarded with that person’s reverence and respect for saving them. This is a common pattern befalling many aspiring young African Americans seeking to “give back” to their community. 

Within the African American community, we are raised with specific messages that ingrain service, giving, community, collectivism, and most importantly, sacrifice for others into our psychological landscapes.  These messages include:

  • Each one, teach one.
  • He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.
  • A mind is a terrible thing to waste.
  • It takes a village to raise a child.

Although these sayings are well intended, the problem is that the Captain/Savior’s actions may not be aligned with the desires of the people they want to help. Those individuals may not want assistance from the Captain/Savior.  Furthermore, any obligations that the Captain/Savior has to their own life, such as family, church, community, must be balanced against the needs of the people that the Captain/Savior is trying to help, and they often suffer.  As a result, the Captain/Savior is often forced to deplete their own psychological resources, continuously investing time, energy, and effort into mentorship, advocacy, and other supporting efforts, hoping that something will resonate.

Let’s examine the realities of these idioms that you may be staunchly guiding oneself by:

  • Each One, Teach One
    • Truth: Even in your limited teaching experience,  you are not observing this directly.  There is no commitment to either teach or learn from each other.
  • He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother
    • Truth: He is heavy! The fact that he is my brother does not take away the reality of interacting with a person who is psychologically impacted and weighing me down as I am seeking to help him.
  • A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste
    • Truth: In your daily experience, you see the potential of brilliance and the possibilities of tomorrow being wasted by lack of discipline and behavioral reinforcement.
  • It Takes a Village to Raise a Child
    • Truth: The villagers have scattered; some are fearful of their own children and are therefore incapable of raising them. For the children of the village to succeed, their parents must be deeply involved in academic learning.  However,  when seeking to choose between focusing on providing food, clothing and shelter or being actively involved in daily learning, those parents are forced to choose the basics of life over their child’s academic development.

Young Man, you benefited from the mentorship offered to you by your beloved Mr. Bates.  However, the problem here is that as you seek to follow in his steps, you are failing to take into consideration that you chose to accept Mr. Bates’ assistance and the resources he had to offer.  The error in your actions is your unwillingness to accept your students’ decision to “go their own way.”  Perhaps you assume that because of their youth, “they either don’t understand or are oblivious to the life that you believe is waiting for them. 

Such thoughts can be condescending and patronizing as these do not acknowledge or respect  the freedom of your students to experience life on their own and to learn the lessons these experiences provide. You can lead those horses to the water, but you cannot make them drink it.

Or, you can leave the horse at the watering hole and allow it to figure it out, or not.  It may sound cruel or heartless to suggest that upon seeing a person walking towards what you believe is impending disaster, not to intervene.  However, you do not have the same vantage point or perspective as the person you are trying to help. After repeatedly “saving” that person from himself and they still insist on their previous course of action….is it your role to continue to step in their way?  The answer is no. Like you, those individuals have the freedom to make their own choices about their lives, whether those choices benefit them or not.

“Live the life you want or continue to live the live you have.  You must decide.  You cannot do them both.”
-Dr. Micheal Kane

Young Man, regarding being frustrated and disappointed in Steven regarding his decision to smoke cannabis during lunch and return artwares to class, consider the following questions:

  • Was Steven forced to smoke cannabis or did he exercise free will in his decision?
  • How are you personally impacted by Steven’s decision and actions?
  • Most importantly, what did you learn about yourself in relation to Steven’s actions?

As you ponder your responses to these questions, consider the Five Elements in Walking the Landscape:

  • Choices– there are choices at the crossroads affronting the individual as to the direction one will take.
  • Decisions– must be made. It is one path or the other. One cannot go in two different directions at the same time.
  • Consequences– are the responses to the decisions one has made and what one does or does not …do.
  • Lessons Learned– bring experience, wisdom or …they don’t.
  • Transformation is the desired outcome here; permanency and empowerment are the objectives we seek from the choices and decisions made at the crossroads.

When examining the model, we can realistically understand and accept the following:

  • Steven has free will and made the decision to smoke cannabis
  • Consequently, by his actions he was observed by you being high returning to class
  • Steven’s ability to be successful in learning has now been impacted by his behavior and actions.
  • Now you, as the teaching intern, must decide whether you are going to move forth with staking your credibility on Steven’s judgment and choices by writing a letter of recommendation to your college’s dean, or accept that, based on Steven’s actions, he is not ready to proceed with your help.

The Shakiness of the Captain/Savior Complex-The Soft Pillow Landing

Young Man, by taking personal offense to Steven’s decisions and actions, you create an imbalance between your thoughts and feelings that impacts how you see Steven and how you see yourself.  You seek to save him from a life that he may in fact prefer and enjoy, regardless of the challenges he may face. Furthermore, you seek to protect him from learning about and appreciating his biggest adversary and his biggest ally in life: himself.  You want to offer him something that clearly is beyond your scope: safety and security in a land that is inherently hostile to him as a young black man.   

Young Man, stop seeking to be another Mr. Bates. Mr. Bates did not rescue you from yourself.  He instead provided you with the knowledge of and opportunity to enter a world that was not previously accessible to you.  Through his mentorship, he helped you clearly see the choices before you and helped you make a decision that transformed the trajectory of your life. While Mr. Bates gave you guidance and information, you were the one who had the wisdom to utilize that knowledge to make the right choices for yourself.  If you chose to go in a different direction, Mr. Bates would have had to let you go your own way, just as you must want to let Steven go his own way.

Young men like Steven have the right to accept or reject your counsel, wisdom, or direction.  They have the right to decide their own fate even if it leads directly to the adversity that you see ahead. The soft pillow landing you seek to provide for Steven actually belongs to you.  Steven tossing the pillow back to you is not a rejection of you.  It is a statement of his autonomy, and even if you disagree with it, it is his decision to make and for you to respect.

Young Man, am I suggesting that you give up on our young people? Or sit idly by and watch them fail whereas you know that they have the capacity to be successful? No, of course not.  I am suggesting that you stop being the Captain/Savior of the community and instead, be a symbol, a role model, and an example of what your students can be. Celebrate the students who take advantage of the knowledge and education that you can offer to them. 

In the example of the STEM event, focus on the 7 young students who attended. They are the ones who are interested, committed to education, and want to attend a four-year university, not the people who did not attend.   Be the beacon who lights their way on their journey as they follow their interests, encouraging and extending empowerment and hope to them.  Be the sources of support, resources, positive esteem and self-regard.  Do for those students what Mr. Bates did for you!

Black History Month & the Silence of the School Administration and Faculty

Recently, I met with a former corrections supervisor now retired after 30+ years working in penal institutions.  In acknowledging the school to prison pipeline, he stated that as a corrections professional, he had a job to do, and he did his best to be fair and implement the policies of the institution fairly, while offering mentorship and support. Some of the young Black males listened and readily sought him out, where others just did their time or dealt with the consequences of their actions.  Those who want help will seek it out and those who don’t won’t.

American schools and prisons share common characteristics, particularly the lack of emotional and societal maturity existing in both places and the onus placed on students and inmates respectively to seek assistance for themselves if they desire it.  In schools, just like penal institutions, once black students and inmates leave the institution, it is unlikely that they will return to the communities in which their White teachers and jailers live and work. 

For some teachers, teaching is a calling and a passion and like many in the corrections system, it is a means of providing income and supporting their families and nothing more.  While it is important for you and others of your community to celebrate and encourage Black achievement, do not assume that others feel the same way or are committed to the cause like you are.  Many protests and other forms of social action were organized and deployed by high school students in the Civil Rights Movement and activities following into the 1970s.  Nothing prevents modern students today from mobilizing and continuing those efforts.  

Ducks quack and complain while eagles soar high and above.  So, soar like an eagle and stop quacking like a duck.” – Dr. Wayne Dyer

Concluding Words- Dr. Kane

My Dear Young Man,

It is alarming that your school may be graduating students who perform lower than their grade level. It is alarming that these students will be sent into the world unprepared and potentially fall prey to a system that would be happy to incarcerate and institutionalize them.

As you come to the end of the academic term and attend graduation exercises, be prepared for the sights you will see: Black parents who you may have never seen at parent-teacher conferences or who have not responded to your emails and phone calls, proud that their children are obtaining pieces of paper that simply pass them out of high school into whatever future they may pursue. You may note that these students do not have the skills to either obtain an entry-level job or be competitive enough to enter a four-year college. The school superintendent will give speeches, the teachers, parents, and students will be smiling, and the prison pipeline will be preparing for the arrival and welcoming of new attendees.

The decision to continue your teaching career or transition to Corporate America and the high-tech industry is a decision that only you can make.  Your commitment to your community is obviously very important to you, so you must remember to balance your personal desires and wants with the needs of your community, while being careful not to sacrifice yourself for that community. Be aware that your community will continue to struggle with the imbalance resulting from more than 403 years and counting of oppression and will always be pressuring you to service. You must prioritize yourself above the needs of the community, lest you find yourself unable to help because you have nothing left to give.  

To be of assistance, mentorship, and service to others, you must first want to be an advocate for self, working toward being balanced emotionally and psychologically and achieving calmness in a world that will at times aggressively come at you because you are a black man. In my 35 years of clinical experience in trauma and psychological impacts, I have identified 17 subtypes of psychological traumas and 15 forms of racism that impact African Americans daily. Consequently, faced with daily battles in the workplace, the stress of constant vigilance during daily activities and interaction with white people and other people of color, the larger African American community is ill-equipped to prepare its young people, particularly males, for the passive or open hostility that awaits them.

African Americans have histories of being psychologically impacted.  Trauma is permanent, meaning that traumatic impact never, ever goes away.  The objective is to learn how to live with trauma and not live in trauma. Learning to do this requires therapeutic intervention.  However, therapeutic intervention is more successful when it is enthusiastically sought, versus when it is viewed with contempt and suspicion.

As a clinician, I view African Americans in two groups that are targeted by those holding privilege:

  • The Walking Dead and Wounded: those who are existing (barely alive) and surviving (day to day) and,
  • The Living: those seeking to drive (being empowered), strive (setting the pace and direction) and thrive (achieving goals and objectives).

The system started in 1619 following the first slaves arriving in America with the creation of “slave catchers,” the ancestors of today’s modern police. This is set up to maintain large numbers of African Americans in the Walking Dead category and control the access of those seeking success in the Living category. 

Whether you continue teaching or move into technology walking your landscape successfully would suggest ongoing therapeutic involvement to achieve and balance emotional and psychological wellness. Learn from your elders, as to what has happened to them in their lives.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I want more? Or will I continue to settle for less?
  • Do I want to live the life I want? Or do I continue to live the life I now live?
  • In walking my landscape, not that of my family or my community, how do I walk my landscape smarter and not harder?

Best wishes on your journey of self-discovery!

“Some people will never like you because your spirit irritates their demons.”

-Denzel Washington, Actor & Academy Award Winner

“As much as I love you,

I love me more.

Loving me more,

Does not mean,

I love you less.

It simply means

I love me more.


-Dr. Micheal Kane

Until the next crossroads….. the journey continues…

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