The Body Beautiful


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.

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?

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 Automotive—home of the Pistons—they 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 surroundings—the flat grass field of McCarren Park—as 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 uniforms—black pants and a polo shirt with the school’s logo—or, 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.

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.

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.

Gym is the class that brings almost all the girls’ grade point averages down. They don’t want to change clothes, play basketball with all the sweaty boys, or yell at the big guys to stop hogging the weight machines. Coincidentally (or not), a large percentage of Automotive girls are plagued with a permanent case of menstruation, which serves quite conveniently as an excuse for standing on the sidelines during each period of physical education. So, during specific periods, Silberman closes the weight room for girl use only. And the biggest perk of all, as mentioned before: The girls don’t have to wear the uniforms. The advantages to being female add up to the point that boys get jealous, but privileges do the job—they give girls an extra reason to remain at 50 Bedford.

The privileges are a plus, but it’s still hard for a girl to stay the path at a mostly boys’ high school. Katrina Green entered in 2003 with 18 other freshman girls; three years later, there are only eight left from her class. The others transfer or drop out for various reasons, one being that they don’t like cars, but the biggest and most preventable reason is getting a bad name for going out with too many boys or with one in particular who likes to spread rumors. Automotive is different from other schools because of the 15 car laboratories inside, but it’s similar in another sense: It’s a laboratory where females and males are experimenting with each other for the first time. But the ratio of girls to boys changes things around. Girls accuse Automotive boys of being the worse gossipers in all of New York: They say word of any hanky-panky will spread within an hour. Girls find that to stay the course, they must develop ways to cope, and often that method is depending on each other for advice and acquiring a strong sense of self.

Katrina Green likes to stick to herself these days. When she started at Automotive she’d stay all day long and chat with her friends in the halls. She’s been at Automotive for four years and feels like she’s taken from the experience all that she can. She’s almost 18 years old and still doesn’t have her driving permit, but she does know how to strip a car, paint it, and do a little welding. She comes to school by 7:15 and by noon she’s out the door. She doesn’t even go to the cafeteria anymore; she skips solids and energizes herself with a Gatorade, staining her tongue the greenish hue of antifreeze solution. She takes a subway and three buses to her part-time job the school helped hook her up with. All students, if they show interest, can get an auto-industry internship.

Katrina works for Life Quality BMW service center in Canarsie, filing service reports. She has excellent posture, exuding confidence with every maneuver. Her shoulders are back and her chin slightly up—she looks like she owns every piece of ground her sneakers touch. When she speaks, she makes direct eye contact and is as articulate as any talk show host on television. Boys know not to mess. But she wasn’t always so poised. She claims that the counsel given to her by the older girls when she first arrived on campus helped her to endure until her senior year. It’s all about making an initial statement—don’t sit on laps, giggle too much, tug on jackets, or find yourself alone with a boy under a stairwell. Those actions will not bode well for long-term stays at Automotive.

Automotive is very protective about its girl population. Garcia roams the halls. One of his jobs as school security guard is to watch out for the students, especially the girls. Garcia looks behind staircases; that’s where couples making out were found in the past. Students named one staircase in particular “the Exit,” and not because it was the way to the street. The Exit was the inspiration for many nicknames—smutty buddy, smut bucket, MetroCard, superhead, video vixen, and jump-offs or JO for short—which caused a few girls to excuse themselves from Automotive’s attendance sheets. Girls become conscious of sexual inequality right from the start: A girl is labeled a slut and a boy is a player when any rumors of necking reach other classmates.

So before Katrina’s graduation, she feels it’s her duty to share some of the information, which helped her get so far, with the 23 freshmen girls who entered Automotive this year.

As a mentor Katrina will give the girls advice on which boys to trust and which boys to avoid. “I tell them, ‘He’s a player, this, that, and the third,’ ” says Katrina. “Don’t get with too many ’cause then you look like a ‘ho.”

If the freshmen are really lucky, Katrina might eventually divulge the four-year summary of what she learned about males:

1. They are immature, mostly.

2. If you came for the boys, that will change once you get to know them.

3. Younger ones can be more mature than the older ones.

4. The ones you think you can’t talk to, you actually can.

5. They can be friendly sometimes.

Katrina doesn’t concern herself with Automotive boys anymore—she’s dated five during her four years. Now she’s dating a boy she met from church. He makes her promise that if he ever gets a car, that when it breaks down, she will fix it up.

Katrina Green knows how to turn on the heat when necessary.
photo: David Yellen

Juana Abreu sits in front of a computer. She’s in her virtual-enterprise course; business students take it instead of studying mechanics. Most girls opt for this route. They’re running a virtual company called Cruisin’ With Class and sell automotive accessories over the Internet. Boys and girls type away on their keyboards, developing a business plan and exploring marketing options. They compete with other high schools around the country to create the most successful virtual company. They will sell car parts and earn virtual money, but have to spend their earnings on the services of other companies, such as ones to help them market their brand.

Juana, the CEO of Cruisin’ With Class, calls her board members to the conference table. Her hair is dyed blond, but it’s more of a gold and blends in with her skin tone. She flat-irons each segment, because if she didn’t, her head would turn into the jump-off point for a million little anti-gravity springs. She’s got on tight jeans, a white blouse, and a string of doubled-up pearls falling over her chest. She’s curvy and full-lipped and always has a small motorcade of boys revving their engines near her desk. Three boys and two girls pull up seats around the table; a small display of headlights is in the middle. Juana holds up their business plan and points to the graphic of a hubcap. “We need to freshen this up; this has to be changed,” she demands. “It sucks.”

The boys slouch in their chairs and pout. Juana hears someone curse. “Watch your mouth, Sean,” she warns, reminding the boys that girls may not run the car companies, but they do rule the world.

When Juana first arrived at Automotive, she wasn’t so assertive. The first time she dated someone, she remembers being treated like turf. “I was Ray’s girl,” she says. “Even after we broke up.”

She’d enter the hall with her friend Melissa, and they’d find bestowed upon them the power of Moses. The sea of boys would part. It converged only after the girls’ swaying behinds were out of sight. The girls didn’t know what to do but accept they’d be watched.

The girls discovered a tactic so they could walk more covertly. They use a similar book bag—rectangular with a long strap. They hang the bag diagonally over their bodies and swing the bag to the back until it covers their butts—no boy can say or pinch anything with a big black bag hiding their cheeks. At least that was the original plan, back in 2003. But hiding behind some black bag wasn’t going to do for four years of school. Soon they changed their ways; they learned that being the minority means that to be heard, they’ve got to brew up a louder voice. The girls at Automotive are pressed to question their upbringing and stand up for themselves.

Juana lives in what she calls the dark side of Bushwick, starting at the Wilson stop and heading east. Juana says it’s safer now than it used to be. She walks by dozens of church facades, drug dealers standing out front hawking their goods, on the way to her house every day after school. She’s known the dealers since she was little and they would never give her any trouble. She grew up in a household with five sisters and her parents. Her mother dropped out of school to take care of her children; she cooked, cleaned, and even scrubbed her husband’s feet each evening. A couple years ago, Juana’s father left the family and went back to the Dominican Republic, never officially divorcing her mother. Now Juana watches her mother unable to forget her father and move on. “He eats her head up,” she says.

“That’s not gonna be me,” says Juana. The learning goes beyond school; here at home she’s taking notes too. She doesn’t want to end up in her mother’s shoes, and by forging a strong role for herself in the classroom—managing multiple boys in school projects—she’s seen firsthand that she doesn’t have to settle.

Juana and her friends have been able to use the school as a laboratory, experimenting with, honing, and understanding the extent of their womanly powers. Juana and Grey are both 17 years old. Grey is Juana’s niece, the daughter of her oldest sister. As they blossomed, they tested the influence that piggybacked with their maturing bodies. Knowing that the boys of Automotive were desperate for female contact, during lunchtime, they would ply them for money. They’d dole out subtle nods, softly spoken words, and a slight tug on the sleeve. Their line was simple: Can you give me a dollar? It was a rare day when they couldn’t earn more than 20. They never use the tactic anymore, but it helped them realize untapped potential. “We all got played at the beginning,” she says. She won’t take less than perfect for a partner anymore. “I need someone who’s here 24-7 kissing my ass.”

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.

“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.