The young men shuffle into the classroom all wearing the same red shirt. They know why they're here. They're already cracking jokes about it.
"Real men beat their wives," one says.
"Real men scratch where it itches," another counters.
"Real men take care of business," a more mature one advises. "I've got a kid I'm trying to take care of."
"Yeah, you think it's yours," someone says.
They take seats at three cheap office tables. The building feels like a school — empty hallways, pale walls, posters scrawled with life lessons. It belongs to a program called YouthBuild, which teaches job skills and arranges employment for at-risk young people. But a new wrinkle was recently added to the program: To graduate, the students have to finish a 12-week course called the Man Class.
Rodney Knott, who wears a dapper brown suit and a pink tie, watches the men take their seats. As he waits, he grins and looks at his lesson plan — a curriculum that took two years and four UMKC psychologists to produce.
"Real men got money," one of the guys is saying now. "That's what I need to get me. Baller."
Knott shakes his head.
"I can see we have a lot of work to do," he says. "Man, I hope you guys are joking. I know you're joking. Men learn to be men by watching other men. So if there ain't no men around, how do you learn?
"I know right now you don't know me from Adam," he goes on. "I know I got to earn your trust. But I promise you, I know where you been."
Knott spent his teenage years in the same East Side neighborhoods as the boys he now teaches. When he wasn't much younger than they are, he watched it all burn down.
It was a late-August night in 1972. Knott was on his way to a meeting of the Black Panthers. He knew he had to be on Prospect Avenue at a certain time, but he didn't know why.
Knott's parents had split when he was little, so he was living with his stepmother and father. He excelled at sports — basketball, mostly — but he wanted do something in the community, so he went from group to group talking to people, a sort of series of auditions for his services. Eventually he settled on the Panthers.
From his home in the Vineyard Woods neighborhood on the East Side, he walked west on 40th Street, past vacant lots where buildings had stood until Martin Luther King Jr. was killed four years earlier. When he reached Prospect, not much was said. Everyone knew the plan.
Before he knew it, the Panthers were roaming the streets, and flaming bottles were crashing through storefronts — some black-owned, some white-owned. A white grocery-store owner had hand-lettered a sign and put it in his front window: "Soul Brother." He seemed to think it would fool people into sparing his store. It didn't.
Knott watched the blaze and thought, Yeah, yeah. Maybe this time the fire would be big enough. City leaders couldn't just see a whole swath of the East Side in ashes and do nothing. Right?
"It didn't work out like that," Knott says years later, sitting at a bar in the Crossroads District. "The businesses didn't come back. No money came. They still didn't care."
Lynette Sparkman-Barnes is a clinical psychologist at UMKC. She met Knott in 2009, when he asked for help on a then-unnamed project.
She knew his reputation. Knott had been active in the community for years, and he rarely got involved in anything without calling someone to see what he could learn. Sparkman-Barnes was among the UMKC psychologists and sociologists who'd spent hours poring over studies with Knott.
"He was someone who wanted to know what had been tried and what hadn't," Sparkman-Barnes says. "He had a reputation as a very smart, good man."
But there were some things Knott knew without the benefit of a study — like how a man could abandon his children.
As a student in the late 1970s at the University of Kansas, Knott met the woman who would give him his first son. She got pregnant in 1980. They married and moved back to Kansas City. But two years later, Knott was gone.
"Things weren't working, and I couldn't stay and make them work," he says. "I'm sorry for that now. At the time, I just wanted to go out and make my fortune."
His son grew up in the very conditions that Knott now works to prevent. Meanwhile, Knott became something of a nomad. For 20 years, he went from job to job, state to state, making some money here, losing some there. He sold water in California and built communication towers in Nevada. He married twice more and fathered two more children. The second marriage crumbled as quickly as the first; the third devolved into what he describes as a "codependent relationship centered around doing a lot of drugs."
After that marriage ended, Knott finally experienced what addicts call the "moment of clarity." But what to do with the moment was less clear.
"I suppose I did have some hopes of making things right, but I don't know that I had a real plan for anything," he says. "I just knew I needed to get back to Kansas City."
He moved back in 2003 and spent the next several years working in his old neighborhood. He was president of the Manheim Park Neighborhood Association and a well-known anti-violence activist. When Hyde Park neighbors met about a string of homicides in 2008, organizers urged residents to read Knott's e-mails about working in the community. He was one of several activists who attended KCMO's initial meetings about Aim4Peace, now the city's best-known anti-violence program. In August 2009, he held a conference on absentee fathers at UMKC. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver gave the opening address.
That same year, he brought the idea of the Man Class to Sparkman-Barnes. Reams of research, both local and national, had looked at how broken homes contribute to violence and other crime. But Sparkman-Barnes had never seen anyone address the problem the way Knott proposed.
"It was all common-sense stuff," she says, "but the odd thing is that to my knowledge, it's a group of people and a type of problem that hadn't been specifically targeted before."
For more than a year, Knott, Sparkman-Barnes and an ad hoc group of UMKC psychologists tailored a curriculum to whatever data they could gather on young black men from broken homes.
"If you look at this history and the interviews we'd done with people in these homes, what we found was people who didn't know the basics," Sparkman-Barnes says. "Knowing how to get a job? Knowing to dress nicely for an interview? A lot of men didn't even have that."
The class would include basic life skills: what to wear on a job interview, how to balance a checkbook, and the like. But the challenge would be to engage a wide cross-section of men, from street-raised teens to older men who just never got it together.
Early in the course book, there's a lesson on appearance. To illustrate the difference between a professional and a fraud, it shows two pictures: one of a real policewoman and one of a porn star falling out of a skintight cop costume.
Another lesson — the one that gets the most reaction in class — draws on what the men can learn from crackheads.
"You can laugh, but think about it," Knott says. "If you're a crackhead, you wake up with nothing. You have no prospects, you have no money, and all you want is to get more crack. How are you going to get crack with no money and no job? But every single day, the crackhead finds a way to get that rock. There is a focus of purpose there. You can learn from that."
On a recent January morning, outside a drab brown building on East 23rd Street, a man named Al pulls on a cigarette. Al is in his early 60s. He has lived at Benilde Hall, a live-in treatment facility for addicts, off and on for 10 years. He has a deeply lined face, a pointed beard, and pale-blue irises. The other men call him an intellectual.
Most of Benilde Hall's funding comes from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Most of its residents, including Al, are former servicemen undergoing treatment for addictions. Recently, they've been learning — relearning, really — a new skill: how to be a man.
Once his course was outlined, Knott applied his former-addict hustle to finding a place to test a pilot version of the Man Class. After a year of making calls, he got a bite from YouthBuild. A week later, he got an invitation from Kent Jewell, the executive director of Benilde Hall.
The men Benilde Hall serves are formally trained in the manliest of virtues, both physically and mentally. As clichéd paragons of masculinity go, their trade — soldier — is up there with firefighters and rodeo riders. Yet when Jewell heard about Knott's untested idea, he agreed to make it a mandatory part of Benilde Hall's recovery program. And he already has set up another Man Class, which will start as soon as this one finishes.
"A lot of the things he's going over are basic life skills, yeah, but he's doing it in a way that hasn't been presented to them before," Jewell says in his office, from which he can see all the things that get in the way of his residents' progress: the crack houses, the corners, the supply-and-demand chain of Kansas City's East Side. "A lot of these guys I can't say anything to, because they already look at me and think of me as the enemy. Rodney has a way of letting them know he knows who they are and he's on their side."
In class, it's hard to know whether Al is paying attention. His eyes are open. He looks attentive. But his mind easily could be elsewhere.
"I've heard a lot of it before," he admits. "But Rodney has a way of talking that makes you feel like it might finally stick."
Al grew up in a family of drunks. He joined the Army when he was a teenager, around the end of the Vietnam War.
"There are things you learn in the Army that are very much thought of as masculine, yes," he says. "Self-sufficiency. You learn not to ask anyone for help. When you're an addict, though, those are the qualities that hold you back."
At his peak, he was a sergeant with men who answered to him. One night he got so drunk in a bowling alley that he flashed the weed he was carrying. The cops arrested him. The military busted him down to corporal. Suddenly he was serving alongside the men he'd been leading.
"That was an embarrassment," he says. "But I didn't learn from it."
After he left the service, he started his own carpentry business and a family, and he kept boozing. Much of that time is a blur now, but the outline of his story could stand in for most people here. The booze was manageable until it wasn't, and then he started losing things, including his business and his marriage.
Al checked himself into rehab for the first time more than 25 years ago. So far, it hasn't taken. He goes through cycles, living in Benilde Hall, getting sober and back on the street, then back on a drunk.
"I am what you call a chronic relapser, or at least that's what I call myself," he says. "I've been through every class and every treatment I think there is. I like Rodney's. ... Yes, a lot of it seems very basic, but we're here because we could not manage basic things."
If you want to get the guys in YouthBuild to laugh, ask how often they see their fathers.
They're on a lunch break on a cold January afternoon. There are six of them today, standing among plywood and nail guns in the skeleton of a house they've been building since June. Signs have been taped up to mark what space will become what room. They're gathered in what will one day be a closet.
"I don't see my dad," says 21-year-old Dashawn Robinson. He has an easy smile, and a black crucifix lays against his chest. "I mean, I know where he is. Kind of. I just don't see him."
When Robinson and the others first tried to get into YouthBuild, they were among 100 candidates. Only 25 made it in last summer. Over the past six months, some have landed jobs; some quit. Only a handful remain.
When they finish the house, it should be special for this neighborhood near 53rd Street and Wayne. They're using green-construction techniques that, as far as they know, haven't been tried in this part of town. Robinson points out a particular piece he's proud of: "See that on the floor? That's, like, for energy. It absorbs power and reroutes it so you got a heated floor in the winter."
The six students here have all finished GEDs since they started YouthBuild. Most aren't planning to work in construction, but they're happy to have learned the trade. Some talk about going back to school; others want to train to become mechanics. Robinson sees himself getting some kind of medical training, although he's not sure what he would do with it.
He is the only one here with a son. "He lives with me. I see him all the time. I'm there for that kid. His mom's with me, too, but I don't know if I like her as much," Robinson says. The other guys laugh. "She can go if she want to, just leave my son."
As they build the house, the men sometimes find themselves talking about the Man Class.
"Those classes are long," says Darell Taylor, 21, leaning against the plywood. "I wish it could be shorter. Sometimes it gets hard to pay attention."
"Yeah, but it's good stuff, though," counters Corey McNeil, 20. "A lot of it's stuff you know, but a lot of it's stuff I never thought about."
"Yeah, but I like having the stuff you know in there," Taylor says. "Sometimes you need a refresher. I need one sometimes."
Knott wants to reach guys who need to learn to be men, but these guys have, in a way, already decided to become men by fighting to get into YouthBuild. Unlike the Benilde Hall class, there's a sense of momentum here. So how can anyone know whether he's making progress?
"Sometimes people just need a refresher because they forget," Robinson says. "Lots of guys dropped out, so they couldn't have been that ready to take charge. More might've dropped out, too, if they didn't get that refresher."
In the ninth week of Benilde Hall's class, two dozen men fill the room, leaving just a few feet of space for Knott to operate. He stalks back and forth, working the crowd like a preacher taken with the Word. Some of the congregants are asleep; others look on with wide eyes. In the very front row is a praying mantis of a man in head-to-toe denim. He's gripping a bent hardcover copy of The Remnant, a fictional account of life after the Rapture and the rise of the Antichrist. When he senses that Knott will end a sentence, he shouts the last words, finishing a half-second behind Knott like a fervent worshipper.
"How many of you been using the daily affirmations?" Knott asks. Hands stay in laps.
"Not one of y'all?" he asks. They are three-quarters of the way through the course.
"Is that like when you look at the mirror and talk to yourself?" says Steve, in his late 20s. His feet haven't stopped shaking since class started 30 minutes ago. Most of the men are here because their military service helps pay for their recovery. But about a third of them, including Steve, never wore a uniform. With two drug convictions, he's here as part of a last-chance court deal to keep him out of prison.
"It's not like on Saturday Night Live, like Stewart Smalley — 'I'm good enough, I'm smart enough,' " Knott says, his voice straining to a mocking pitch. "But, yeah, you know what I'm talking about."
"Nah, I ain't been doing that," Steve says.
Knott roars: "I can't do the work for you! I can show you the way, but you got to do this work for yourself! You got the skills! I know you do because you used them to survive."
Because his students are essentially forced to take his class, Knott spends many sessions trying to convince them that the information is worth absorbing. In YouthBuild, at least, the teenagers and young men who sign up need the class to get something of value: a job. Here there are men like Steve, who only show up so they can stay out of prison.
That's why, say Knott and Sparkman-Barnes, the men need lessons like "What you can learn from a crackhead."
"Selling dope is a lot like running your own company, except — and I know this — you got a good chance of becoming your own customer," Knott tells them. "If Sam Walton had been buying everything at Wal-Mart, he wouldn't be doing so good, right? But these skills are transferable. You've got to balance your books, watch your property, all that. All that stuff that makes a successful businessman."
Soon class finishes. The students gather outside to smoke. If they've left booze and dope behind, they've kept the cigarettes. Al is here, an off-brand filter tip burning down, the first of four, with smoke so thick it claws the throat to stand next to him. Nearby, a yellow dog on a long leash tracks through the muddy snow, nuzzling its head against any leg that will stay still.
There is a cracked optimism among the men.
"This is what keeps me out of prison," Steve says. He's standing next to Al, smoking a cigarette from the old veteran's pack. "It's different with the vets around, the older guys. You get locked up with a bunch of young guys, and everyone gets riled up and wants to push on each other."
Knott walks into the cold with his overcoat buttoned, holding his hat to his brow. He doesn't say where he's going, but he has a lot of work to do. A fresh class will start here in less than two months. Same goes for YouthBuild. He also recently started talking with the Missouri Department of Corrections about a Man Class for convicts re-entering society.
Knott also has work to do with his own son. The boy he hasn't seen in 25 years recently contacted him through Facebook. They've yet to meet, and their e-mail exchanges have been cautious. But Knott is optimistic.
"He's a basketball coach," Knott says, beaming that they should have the sport in common. Then, wryly: "I follow his games and give him advice. I'm sure he appreciates that."
Knott turns to Al. "I'll see you next week!" he shouts and waves his hand over his head. "Do your affirmations!"
Al smiles and returns the wave. So does Steve, who immediately bums a smoke as Knott walks away.
"You know, this is teaching me what I have to learn," Steve says. "It's the stuff my dad's been trying to tell me for years, and I never listened to him. Life is boring, and I never listened to that. You get up, you go to a job, you come home, you watch television, you go to bed, you wake up, you do it again. Boring. But it's better than being in prison."