The Body Beautiful

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

As students continue to straggle inside, Silberman stands beside the 70-year-old building, guarding its door and the principle that the girls of Automotive are different. She's there to make the girls feel welcome, but also to make sure they don't leave—even when they feel outnumbered and inadequate. Above, etched into the brick facade, is the saying "Manhood, Service, Labor, Citizenship." When she became principal four years ago, manhood had been covered with rusty red sheeting by a female staff member. Upon taking the reins from a succession of male principals, she asked Mr. Jackson, the janitor, to let manhood once again shine. "For all of mankind," Silberman says. "I'm a different kind of feminist."


At 10 on Thursday morning, girls begin filing into the auditorium. They are ushered to the front. "Ladies, come on, sit up close," says a female teacher. By the time the last dawdlers sit down, only the first four rows on the right side are filled. They face a stage. Ms. Silberman stands just below it, trying to shush them. There are so many empty orange chairs around the small pocket of chirping young girls that each could invite five friends and there would still be enough room for two marching bands and the football team. Mounted around the girls are portraits of cars, depicting everything from the 1903 Red Curved-Dash Oldsmobile to the General Motors dream car.

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.

Details

All the girls in the high school are excused from their third-period class to attend this month's girl assembly. The agenda includes a girls' trip, cheerleading, mentoring, and the first Automotive softball team. Silberman addresses the young faces. "Already you know you're rare, better, and special," she starts. "You're my trend-setting females."

Silberman clasps her hands together and smiles. Female students are a priority to her, it's easy to see, and not only because she addresses them each as "princess" or "queen" as she strolls by them in the halls; she glows at the idea of the young girls before her becoming pioneers in nontraditional careers. By entering the automotive field, these girls could potentially earn on average 25 percent more than in more traditional lines of work, bumping them up a couple of socioeconomic notches and giving them the opportunity to be self-sufficient.

Silberman's in touch with her femininity, but doesn't use it to get what she wants. She teaches her "trend-setting" girls by example and is stern—doesn't coyly smile, wink, or demurely twist her hair around her finger (though, she admits, in many cases, these tactics are proven to work quite well)—when students are out of line or when she's fighting with bureaucracy to improve Automotive's state.

"I think you're amazing," continues Silberman. "More girls are graduating faster, more girls are picking up all the credits . . . " The girls stop chatting and start showing interest. They feel proud of the positive attention. Silberman took Automotive's driver's seat four years ago. Before she took over, she said, a "boys-will-be-boys attitude" prevailed. Now she reigns with the attitude that "boys become men." She's trying to create a comfort level around women, so when the boys become men in the workplace, they will treat all clients with equal respect and not with the condescension toward women that is commonly attributed to the automotive industry. This dream won't come true if she can't up the girl population. Since Silberman arrived, the number of girls has more than doubled. When she started, facilities and activities for girls were lacking; they still are, but little by little Silberman is trying to raise the standard, and now girls actually enjoy quite a few benefits that their male counterparts do not.


Besides opening up an extra girls' bathroom—a few years ago there was only one—Silberman is starting a softball team. She invites up Mr. Rothenberg, a man with many different tasks—shop teacher, dean, athletic director, and morning coffee maker to name a few—to explain. He moves to face the young women. The students call him Mario (of the Super Mario Bros. Nintendo game) or Mr. Monopoly for the lump of hair below his nose that seems large enough to start its own motor and drive off down his chin. "Anyone have a glove?" he asks. It's a simple question, but one that not a single girl from Automotive has heard during the seven decades its car labs have been humming.

Ten hands jolt toward the ceiling. The group seems more excited than they were about the bowling league attempted last year—the Pink Pistons. The team's fuse broke before it even really got going. Cheerleading is also a possibility, but it will be difficult to realize. At least a fifth of the total girl population will have to wield pom-poms; any fewer and their presence would actually weaken the Pistons' image.

More perks. The girls have special advisory sessions. They go on field trips, like to the movies. They get an annual overnight retreat upstate to experience nature; this year Silberman will play chef. Because they are a small group, teachers often pay closer attention to their needs and learn all of their first and last names.

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