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This year, after graduating as salutatorian of her class, Ham is a "super senior" at Aviation's small annex campus at JFK airport, where she is forewoman of her shop class. Each year, 25 Aviation graduates are invited to participate in a fifth-year program at JFK that's dedicated to preparing them for an FAA licensing exam for certification to work on airplane engines.
It's a shift that also puts Ham in the same building as her father every school day. An immigrant from Taiwan, Huan Ham worked his way up to manager of three McDonald's stores in Manhattan, and in 1988 he bought the house where he and his family live in South Ozone Park. The Hams' backyard is in the flight path of JFK's runway 13-L—the runway that served the Concorde for many years. (Its arrival each day signaled 5 p.m.)
When Huan Ham lost his job at McDonald's in 1992, he bought a 200-acre coffee plantation in Honduras—Estrella's mother's native country—and began importing coffee and selling it in a small shop at JFK. He named the business Star Mountain Coffee, after the English translation of his older daughter's name.
Estrella Ham grew up in the male-dominated milieu of the airport—freight forwarders, air-freight brokers, cops, and truckers made up the majority of customers at the family store—but it still didn't prepare her for Aviation High School. Ham speaks carefully about her adjustment her first year, when she was one of just two girls in her first shop class, acknowledging it was difficult. "I wasn't used to guys calling girls out," she says.
Everyone at Aviation has noticed that a disproportionate number of girls at the school have leadership positions. This year, all the officers of Pegasus, an honors society for shop classes, are girls. Last year, Ham was third in a line of female wing commanders of ROTC, which is the largest and most respected extracurricular activity at the school. The first-term wing commander this school year, Ana Sanchez, says of girls at Aviation, "We deal with something the boys don't deal with. We have to prove ourselves. It's not going to be just as easy for me to pick up a tire as it is for a boy who weighs more than I do and is taller than me and is stronger than me, but I'm going to have to get the job done eventually."
It's possible that the girls' disproportionate leadership in extracurricular activities has come about because high-achieving girls, perhaps even more than high-achieving boys, feel compelled to prove themselves in as many ways as possible. Shop classes are one equalizer—a few girls I spoke with described their satisfaction when their projects are consistently more stable or more precisely hewn than their classmates'.
Aviation's ROTC is another. "We teach the cadets that it doesn't matter if it's a young lady or a young man leading the unit," said Sergeant Nephtali Robles, who co-coordinated Aviation's ROTC chapter during the period Ham served as wing commander. "They can look and see their ribbons. Cadets have to earn those ribbons."
Ham earned the honor of wearing the red cord that marks the position of wing commander by participating in virtually every activity connected with ROTC, including serving in the color guard at the opening ceremony of a Mets game and participating in a drill-team routine in which several cadets circled around a boy and threw rifles over him as he lay on his back, spinning his own rifle. "She was really proficient with a rifle," says Sergeant Robles.
"I started to feel more comfortable at the school," Ham says, "as I got more involved in ROTC."
At the annex, students wear sky blue work shirts sewn with two rectangular navy blue breast patches—one that reads "JFK Annex," the other embroidered with the student's last name and first initial—and a small American flag patch over the left shoulder. Pat Duignan, who is so fresh from his job as an electrical specialist at United Airlines that he still wears a United jacket marked with his last name, teaches a daily morning class in engine maintenance. Students do their shop work in a gymnasium-sized space that's framed by two rows of exposed jet engines, including one with a shell coated with Federal Express's signature purple.
Ham's crew, number six, includes Carla Rodriguez, who next year will begin college at SUNY Stony Brook, where she plans to study environmental science. "I don't want to sit down in an office in my job. I want to be outside and doing things," she says.
Around 1 p.m., annex students disperse to their internships across the airport. (Sixteen of the 24 go to Delta, which runs a special program for them.) Ham's internship is in the air traffic control tower, where she monitors the system that provides weather updates for pilots and, with the alacrity and speed of a Vegas card dealer, sorts light green strips displaying coded flight information for recently arrived or departed planes into two piles, one for large aircraft, the other for small ones.