The Body Beautiful

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

In math class, room 302, Mr. White tries to quiet down his students with rhythmic beats. His lanky arms join together over and over. He claps twice and then brings his finger toward the scruff on his chin: "Shhh." The students yell across the classroom; White's tactics go unheard. He becomes animated; his dark eyes widen and he starts singing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm." The students finally bring their decibel level down from deafening shouts to irritating clucking.

"Hello, gentlemen, and ladies too," White says. Two ladies; there are only two girls in his class of 30. Grey and Christina, both seniors, sit up front near the blackboard. They giggle, whisper, and smack on bubble gum.

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.


"Factor this quadratic trinomial," White says, writing a long equation on the chalkboard. The girls' backs face the boys. Some boys scream that they need White's immediate attention. White springs from one desk to another; all the while the girls keep to themselves in the front, not letting the boys distract them from their conversation, talking about what they're going to eat during lunchtime.

"Grey, Christina, you should try to participate as well," White says.

The girls raise their hands.

"Twenty-six," Grey says. They go back to blowing pink bubbles, popping them and adding to the din of the classroom.

The girls form a small clique, but have learned to turn their disadvantage inside out—they've created new laws that rule school etiquette. After realizing their unique place in the school, they've found sometimes it's hard not to take advantage. The bell rings. Grey and Christina are the first into the hall; they recruit another friend on their way down to the basement cafeteria. Boys fill the benches like flocks of birds sitting wing to wing on telephone wires. The lunch ladies open their buffet; the starving boys rush forward and make a line out the door. The three girls wait until they're ready—a good five to 10 minutes—then ever so confidently shuffle to the front of the long line. "We've been doing this forever," says Grey.

A boy comes up to the wandering security guard, Garcia.

"They can cut in line 'cause they girls, right?" he says. Garcia nods. The girls laugh heartily and then dig in—nothing like pizza breads, fish sandwiches, and french fries without having to wait in line. Sometimes the privileges become weapons for the girls to use to gain advantage over the boys. It may not be fair, but neither is being outnumbered.

Grey and Juana skip their final period. Instead they go to Mr. Hinden's college and career counseling room. It's wallpapered with college pennants. Every desk space is strewn with brochures. Campus postcards spill from Hinden's back pockets. Rows of computers are buzzing; students take virtual tours through school grounds.

Grey fills out her 28th college application. "What's your Social?" says Hinden. "I need your Social."

As much as the boys at Automotive yearn to have a larger population of girls, Hinden yearns to get each senior into a four-year university. He collects file cabinets full of fee-waived applications so his students can afford to give higher education a try. His eyes are always darting in two different directions, making sure everyone is on task. "Fill it out right now," he chirps. "It's free!" With Juana and Grey, he doesn't have to ask twice.

Juana and Grey have been immersed in the auto industry, but that doesn't mean this is where they will stay. For most of the girls, the nontraditional experience is a gateway to new paths, ones they otherwise wouldn't have dreamed of. They've learned to function in a man's world, and any barriers that might have stood in the way of conjuring high goals have crumbled down steadily since day one at Automotive High School. In the end, most of the girls don't want to stay around cars: They're ready for a change, or a challenge. Grey wants to major in psychology. Melissa wants to study criminal justice. Katrina wants to be a veterinarian. Analise's passion is to be a journalist. Juana's thinking of attending Smith College. It's an all-girls school in Massachusetts.

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