“OK, so what should we put into the man box?”
It was third period at West Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Jeff Rothberg, a former middle school teacher in his mid-thirties, was addressing a circle of 12 African-American male students sitting in a circle.
“He has to be tall!” shouted out a tenth grader. “With big muscles!” said another young man.
“Ok, tall and muscular… but are those really attributes you need to be a good man?” questioned Rothberg as he looked around the circle, getting a shake of the head from Rodrigus Wheeler, 20 years old despite the fact that he was a high school senior.
“There’s a lot more to a man than what he looks like,” said Rodrigus.
“That’s right,” Rothberg answered Rodrigus, impressed. “There’s a whole lot more.”
This third period circle was just the second session of the autumn Wise Guys class at West Mecklenburg High. A male-oriented teen pregnancy prevention program, Wise Guys is run by the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina (CHS) at hundreds of school and community sites in 11 North Carolina counties. Rothberg, a Wise Guys facilitator in the Charlotte area, had just met Rodrigus Wheeler at the first session the week before.
“The minute I met Rodrigus I knew he was different,” says Rot hberg. “I sensed he was more mature than the average high school kids. A little more worldly. I could tell the man box didn’t control him and this got my attention.”
Like many of the young men in his circle, Rodrigus had been recommended for the program by Andre Reynolds, the West Mecklenburg High site coordinator for Communities in Schools (CIS) Charlotte Mecklenburg, the local branch of the national CIS network that works with at risk students around the count ry. Wheeler had been in CIS for two years, receiving support in keeping his academics on track. While he responded very positively to the program for close to two years, he fell off the wagon toward the end of eleventh grade. Reynolds was hoping Wise Guys would help him get through twelfth.
“I knew it would help Rodrigus define himself – his character, his values, and his ability to make wise, responsible choices,” explains Reynolds. “I also knew that once he joined the circle, he’d feel like he had to come to school because the other guys would be counting on him to be there.”
When Rodrigus was 9 years old, his father taught him how to drive. It wasn’t long before the elder Wheeler, an auto mechanic, was relying on his young son to drive him home from parties when he became too drunk.
By the time Rodrigus was 12, he was stealing cars. He was living in Atlanta with his grandmother by then, neither of his parents able to keep him. Never married, they had split up when Rodrigus was a baby, both moving onto a series of relationships that gave Rodrigus a whole lot of half siblings but not a lot of attention.
“Me and my buddies would smoke pot and then we’d break into houses to take things and pawn them,” Rodrigus says of his days in Atlanta, explaining that one of his friends had an older brother who served as the group’s leader. “He had nice things – a nice car, nice clothes – and I wanted that too.”
This leader also had a master key to Honda Accords, Rodrigus and his buddies stealing seven in a row, selling the vehicles at a local chop shop for $1500 each. “We never got caught and I liked living on the edge. That’s what made it fun,” Rodrigus says, explaining that it wasn’t until he was pulled over for a simple license check that the police finally busted him. Although he got off with a warning, his grandmother sent him packing the next day.
Back in Charlotte, he was sent to live with his mother’s ex-husband, but his stepfather’s new wife considered Rodrigus a nuisance and locked him out of the house every afternoon. Eventually, the boy convinced his biological father to take him in, but his dad’s new wife also locked him in the backyard, often along with his siblings… unless it was raining, when she’d lock them in the basement instead.
In school, he was placed in remedial classes where he didn’t belong. “I was bored,” he explains. “I’d go to one or two classes and I’d finish my work in the first 20 minutes and then just sit there and sleep. And then I just figured I’d go find something better to do, so I’d leave with my friends.”
Eventually, he was drafted into gang life, joining the Crips. “We’d start riots in the cafeteria, fights in the bathrooms, turf wars with the Bloods in the neighborhood,” Rodrigus says. “I was a do-boy– I’d do everything the older guys asked. I started dealing – I was making $200 a day and buying myself all kinds of nice things — iPods, stuff like that. Everyone thought I was cool because I was tough. I didn’t take anything from anyone.”
Most days, Rodrigus was truant from school, resulting in his failing out of both ninth and tenth grades, forced to repeat both. When school authorities would attempt to contact his parents, they got nowhere. “I was responsible for my own schooling,” says Rodrigus. I’d sign all the progress reports and permission slips myself. And I’d just give them my cell as the contact info. They’d leave a message and I’d just erase it.”
It was in his repeat year of tenth grade that Rodrigus and a friend from high school named Heaven connected at a party one night, resulting in a pregnancy. Although Heaven couldn’t be 100% sure Rodrigus was responsible, it was very likely, so he took responsibility.
“I thought my life was over,” Rodrigus says. “I have a lot of female friends who have had abortions. But others, like Heaven, say that if you can lie down and make a baby, you can stand up and take care of it.”
“Heaven never really asked for anything,” Rodrigus continues. “She just said, ‘If you’re going to be there, give 100 percent, or don’t come around at all.”‘
When Heaven gave birth to Angel, the baby lived with Heaven’s family, Rodrigus spending the night at their home twice a week to help out. “I’ve felt connected to Angel since the first time I changed her diaper,” he says. “That’s when I knew I’d be there for her forever. Whatever she needs, I’ll get the money together.”
“My daughter changed my life,” Rodrigus continues. “I knew it was time for me to grow up. I started fighting less in school. I started getting more wise about what was going on around me and I didn’t like it anymore. I wanted out of the Crips.”
But that didn’t prove easy. “I went to the head of the gang and told him I was leaving,” Rodrigus says. “He sent one of his guys to give me a ride home, and as I was getting out of the car, he shot me in both legs.”
With bullets lodged near the top of both his calf muscles, Rodrigus was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Six weeks later, he was able to walk again. “After that, the gang left me alone,” he says. “Sometimes I’d be scared, but it’s been awhile now and some of them are still my Facebook friends.”
Wise Guys, founded by CHS in 1990, is an evidenced-based, preventative program that has proven successful in helping young males make better, wiser choices about sexual activity. Offered to young men of all socio-economic levels, it is committed to empowering them with the knowledge they need to make effective decisions, encourages them to respect themselves and others, and helps them understand the role of males in society.
“The man box is one of the first tools we use,” explains Rothberg, who is now very thankful that budget cuts ended his job as a teacher, forcing him to look for something new. “We use the man box because we want these kids to start thinking about values… about what a good man is all about. The man box contains the unwritten rules of society about how a man should act.”
“When I ask these kids about what should go inside the box, they usually say a man has to be strong and aggressive… that he’s got to have a nice car and a lot of money,” Rothberg continues. “None of the kids ever say he should be smart, educated or sensitive.”
With the man box exercise, Rothberg leads the young men into redefining what a man should be. “What they think is in the man box will control how they behave. If they’re aware of what should be in the box, they can control their own actions.”
“Some of the kids understand all of this better than others,” Rothberg continues. “Rodrigus was comfortable enough with himself to say that he didn’t have to follow cultural norms in how a man should look, or let the rules in the man box dictate his behavior. I think he felt that way because he was already pretty responsible by then… he was already taking care of his daughter. More than anything, he just needed the support of these men.”
“I had no idea what it was at first,” says Rodrigus of the Wise Guys program. “One day in gym, Mr. Reynolds brought me a pass. When I got to the room, there were 12 of us and I didn’t know most of the other guys, and I didn’t know anyone well. But you could sit and have a regular conversation without all the bickering and fighting. That’s hard to do when girls are around.”
“We all just bonded right away,” Rodrigus continues. “We found out we were all in the same boat. We became a family… you’re my brother now. We talked about things on another level other than just ‘hey, how are you doing.’ We were more supportive… we all wanted to help each other out. And a lot of these guys? Two or three years earlier I wouldn’t have looked in their direction because of what I thought was in the man box.”
“On the first day, I come in and talk about my rules and about respect,” says Rothberg. “Most of what they’ve learned before is that you have to respect the teacher in order to get respect back. I tell them the opposite, that I respect all my students automatically until they give me a reason not to. After that, they think I’m cool.”
The Wise Guys curriculum includes twelve chapters on subjects ranging from reproductive anatomy to sexually transmitted diseases to contraception effectiveness, sexual harassment and dating violence. “We also have content on masculinity, goal setting, values, decision making, fatherhood, abstinence… really about what makes you a man,” explains Rothberg. “And a big part is just about relationships – how men and women act, the ethics and morals behind a healthy relationship, general communication with regard to getting tested before sexual activity.”
Last spring, Rothberg was asked to be a chaperone for the CIS trip to the annual Man Up Conference, a CIS of Charlotte sponsored special event designed to expose male students to valuable life skills while promoting brotherhood, awareness and responsibility. Serving 350 urban high school youth during this one day event, the young men participate in forums with motivational speakers, many of them older, successful community members. “They weren’t telling us how to be men, they were telling us how they became successful men… They were telling us their life stories,” says Rodrigus.
The participants were divided into clusters, and at the end of the summit, Rodrigus was chosen as his group’s representative to summarize their combined experiences. “He got up in front of 400 plus men and boys and articulated very eloquently what had been learned,” says Reynolds. Rothberg couldn’t agree more.
Rodriguez Wheeler graduated high school. . Although his mother had moved to Florida just three days before, his father and several of his siblings were in attendance. In the fall he will be enrolling at Lincoln College ofTechnology in Nashville where he plans to study heavy machinery and diesel engine maintenance. Eventually, he’d like to work on vehicles at a car or truck dealership, or perhaps on machinery in the construction industry.
“I like engines – I’ve always been a grease monkey,” Rodrigus says. “And it’s better to have a career than just a job. It’s better if you can get up in the morning and like what you do.”
With the same girlfriend for close to a year, Rodrigus is now living with her until it’s time to move to Nashville. He believes Wise Guys has helped him know how to behave in the relationship.
“Wise Guys helped me to see what’s right in terms of relationships… it gave me more of an insight,” Rodrigus says. “Many things I thought were right about being a man were wrong. I thought it was all about the money, the clothes, the respect and fame. But as long as you’re taking care of yourself and your kids – if you’re taking care of your responsibilities — you’re a man.”
As of yet, Rodrigus’ girlfriend hasn’t met Angel, Heaven protecting the child from meeting any of his girlfriends until he can guarantee it’s a serious relationship that will last. So for now, he still hangs with Angel by himself. It’s still the best part of his week. He’s learned from his own father’s mistakes and knows he’s already giving far better fathering than he ever received.
And what about Angel’s true paternity? Does Rodrigus ever think of that? “I don’t want to know,” he says. “If I found out she wasn’t mine, I’d be heartbroken. I’ve been there since she was born so she’s my child. She’s just mine.”
Wise Guys is expanding within North Carolina, new middle and high school campuses added every year. In 2012, state court judges began ordering enrollment in Wise Guys as part of their sentencing of young male offenders, moving the program into even more new territory. Wise Guys has also gone beyond state borders in the past few years by offering hands-on training sessions to educators and other professionals in over 300 communities around the US.