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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.