The Body Beautiful

The girls of Automotive High don't just fix cars—they fix themselves

Analise Rivera moves her focus rapidly back and forth from the overhead projection screen to the paper on her desk, jotting in her notebook today's lesson:

There is a silicone boot at one end to form a tight waterproof seal around the spark plug insulator and lock onto the terminal top. The opposite end has a boot also, that locks onto the ignition coil(s) or distributor cap.

"I want everyone to get this down," says Mr. Cassino, pointing toward the screen. His black-stained fingers are evidence of what he's spent most of his years doing—working on cars. This room marries garage with classroom; there is space enough to park both multiple students and cars. If all the cars started rolling, there would be a six-car pileup near the projection screen. There are four rows of long desks, which 20 students sit fidgeting behind. A maroon Toyota Corolla hatchback is so close to one boy that he leans on the back two legs of his chair and the car door stops him from falling to the concrete floor. Analise is the only girl in the class and she sits toward the front, aiming to get every letter down before it's time to turn a string of words into a honed skill.

Sixty-six girls attend Automotive High School in Brooklyn, outnumbered by 1,000 boys. Here are five: from left, Katrina Green, Greidenix Maria, Juana Abreu, Lynely Ruiz, and Analise Rivera.
photo: David Yellen
Sixty-six girls attend Automotive High School in Brooklyn, outnumbered by 1,000 boys. Here are five: from left, Katrina Green, Greidenix Maria, Juana Abreu, Lynely Ruiz, and Analise Rivera.


She closes her notebook and trots to her locker, passing four cars on the way. Boys surround her, also digging deep into their cubbies and squirming into their uniforms. Analise guides her legs into royal-blue coveralls. She zips it over her jeans and black hoodie sweatshirt. Across her back, bold-white lettering states where she's attended school for the past three years: Automotive High School.

Automotive is a public high school in Brooklyn devoted to training New York City's youth to work on cars. Graduates will be tomorrow's mechanics (and even if they don't stick with the trade, they will be handy friends to keep around).

A navy Mercedes 300D turbo diesel rests on a lift; Analise walks under and begins drilling into the car's underside. Two boys stand behind her, each trying to get her attention. She's chummy but gets down to business, blasting away at the vehicle's lower control arm until her whole body feels like it's vibrating. Abraham, another student, steadies her hand; a thin gold ring stands out as well as a hastily done manicure job.

Her first year, while changing a tire, she broke a nail she'd been growing for months. She was pissed off and didn't touch a car until the next year, when her teacher threatened to fail her for not getting in the grease enough. Now she enjoys lying flat on the creeper, which she prefers to call a skateboard, wheeling it under the car and diagnosing the trouble. "I can tell my father what's wrong," she explains. "I say, 'Yo, Papi. Something's wrong with your struts, mad wrong.' "

At first she was intimidated by being the token female in so many of her classes; she was scared and worked best with her lips sealed. But now she's known as a talker; she's become a master at the art of being herself. She knows how to turn overenthusiastic boys into relationships that please her—to boys that are friends or boyfriends. The boy to her left takes the drill from her hand; he's got flashy nameplate earrings on: Joshua. She calls him compie, short for compadre. She calls Abraham, the boy to her right, her security guard. She starts humming mindlessly as Joshua drills deeper into the car. She's transfixed by the action. All three stand side by side, hoping that the drill will heat rusted bolts enough to extract them from the inside. Translucent goggles shield their eyes; small metal particles ping soundlessly from the lenses. Then her hum turns into words. Fragments of the Village People's hit song mix with the whining of grinding metal. "Macho, macho . . . " she sings. "I want to be a macho . . . " Uncon- sciously, she leaves out the last, three-letter word—man. Man or woman, it doesn't matter; she's learned both sexes can work equally well under a car. "YMCA," she continues and then drills into the metal some more.

The bell is about to ring. Everyone shimmies out of their coveralls, now black-smudged and wrinkled. They cram them into their lockers and then hover by the door. Abraham sticks his finger in Analise's ear; she swats it away. They used to go out—boyfriend and girlfriend.

"You still think I said stuff to the football team," he says to her.

"Stop fronting," she replies.

"Hey, you played me three times yesterday."

Analise laughs and shrugs her shoulders and then swats his finger away again. She undoes her ponytail as the bell rings and slides her fingers through her silky black hair. She bolts into the hall, leaving others to follow her trail. An oncoming boy leaps into her path. The many approaches to flirtation no longer faze her; she's got a class to get to. She bashes the boy in the temple with the ball of her palm. He winces and she moves on.

The halls fill with bobbing heads. The black and white tiles are covered with shuffling sneakers. Bodies cram the staircases. Through the cacophony of voices and mumbles of post-school plans, there's a complex aroma wafting—strawberry-flavored bubble gum mixed with a-spritz-too-much cologne—singeing nostrils with teenage smells. The bouncing heads, the majority anyway, all have closely cropped hair or braids, running back from shiny brows. That's when it happens, it registers, something's missing. Where are all the girls?

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