Kansas City's Man Class was designed for at-risk youths, but it's gained some unlikely new students: veterans 

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"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.

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