By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A cackle. A giggle. A guttural shout echoing off the stuccoed walls. Faces without the slightest bit of peach fuzz have learned to be heard before they're seen. They make up for their low numbers with strong personalities. The girls of Automotive High School don't always know how to stoke an engine or change a spark plug by graduation time, but they know how to deal with the young men who come hollerin' and looking for a good time. The school teaches how to fix cars, but these teenage girls also learn in essence how to fix themselves. They shatter stereotypes as well as break through cultural and social barriers. The process gives them a tough exterior, which will help them overcome the challenges that await in the real world, a real world that is not always fair to women.
There are 66 girls, outnumbered by 1,000 boys. We're looking at a ratio of one girl to every 15 hormonal teenage boys. Melissa Singh is a senior and has yet to get her fingers greasy. Juana Abreu, Greidenix "Grey" Maria, and Audris Abreu are also seniors here. They came in as freshmen, when fewer than 20 girls roamed the corridors. It wasn't that they wanted to be able to navigate the undersides of two-ton vehicles as much as wanting to stay in one close-knit clan. As junior high students, they all marked Automotive High as their first choice, knowing that few girls went there and that chances were they wouldn't be split apart.
Many girls didn't mark Automotive in the top five of their 12 selections, but ended up there anyway due to the Department of Education's unpredictable method of placement. Luciana Volcy and Leah Collado wanted nothing to do with the school; they heard packs of boys ruled the halls and that any girl who went there was ugly. The day they got their acceptance letters from Automotivehome of the Pistonsthey burst into tears. Analise Rivera's grandfather sold car parts in an old parking lot in Hartford, Connecticut. She was familiar with the auto industry but never thought she'd be the one to handle lug wrenches in the family. When she got word that Automotive would be her home for the next four years, she was scared. She knew the rumors: No girls went there and if they did, they were boy-crazy or boyish themselves. Katrina Green didn't get into her first-choice school, Stuyvesant, where all the city's top students are known to go. Automotive and Clara Barton, a health-themed school, offered her a place. She grudgingly took the spot at Automotive. She had a history of girl fights and Clara Barton had too many girls. With fewer young women, Katrina saw fewer chances of detention time.
And though no one admits this about herself, it's always an accusation from peers, teachers, and kids around town: Many girls do come to Automotive for the abundant supply of boys. No girl said boys were a reason for coming, but no one mentioned too much about cars either, except for wanting to own one at some point in time.
In the mornings, teenagers walk along Bedford Avenue to Automotive's three-story building. A black iron fence runs along the perimeter. The brown-brick structure stands out against its surroundingsthe flat grass field of McCarren Parkas do its students among the hipster crowd taking up residence from Greenpoint to Williamsburg. There are no skinny jeans, leg warmers, or shaggy-hair-in-the-eye hairdos adorning the Automotive set. Converse sneakers are a rare sight, almost as rare as Timberlands, cornrows, and nameplate earrings are prevalent. Gentrification stops at the school's stoop. The school is 55 percent black and 41 percent Hispanic.
Students have learned to listen for the clicking heels, jangling keys, and walkie-talkie static that foretell the principal's imminent arrival. The early mornings are the only time Ms. Silberman can be found standing still, and therefore without accompanying sound, in front of the school building. She watches the teenagers closely, like a BMW supervisor would the quality of products coming off the assembly line. She greets them, makes sure that they are wearing their school uniformsblack pants and a polo shirt with the school's logoor, for those students who, instead of shop, take business classes, that they "dress for success" with office-type ensembles.
Ms. Silberman is easy to spot in the crowd. She's the 36-year-old Caucasian woman with highlights in her shoulder-length blond hair (to blend in, she tried to go brunette once; she didn't feel quite herself and immediately bought a box of dye to go back to blonde). Her managing style is strict, but in the mostly male micro-world she manages, she has to maintain a rigid posture. Despite the challenges of earning respect, she embraces the very aspect of herself that makes people question her ability: She's 100 percent female. She wears delicate jewelry and is a junkie for Hello Kitty paraphernalia. When days are tough, she asks her assistant to buy her a Hershey's Special Dark chocolate bar.
"Hey, you're looking good this morning," she says to a uniform-clad young man as he heads toward the metal detectors at the front door. Girls arrive in jeans and sweaters. Silberman lets them pass through despite the lack of uniform; girls at Automotive are special. Privileges, she believes, are necessary to help them through the four-year male immersion. They don't even get a prom, so something has to keep them from transferring.