Ladies, Start Your Engines


A friend of mine from high school owns and operates a car repair shop in Vermont. She not only fixes cars, she runs seminars and workshops for non-car-type people, telling them things about their cars that they are too busy and afraid to figure out on their own.

I just watched a video of Amy giving advice on how to buy a used car and how to understand the inner workings of your car. She shows these girls in her workshop where the brake pads are and explains stuff by using a coffee pot as comparison. Ladies, it doesn’t get any better than that. If you live in Vermont or anywhere in New England for that matter, don’t be a girly girl. Take Amy’s class.

Amy’s video reminded me of the power mechanics class I took as a senior in high school.

My friend Sandy, a year older than me, claims she paved the way for all future Hubbard High School girls to take power mechanics. I must’ve taken it right after her, because the path was still pretty rocky. In fact the path was full of poison ivy, rocks, man-eating bears, and - oh the hell with this analogy - my hands got black with engine grease and no one felt sorry for me because I had just done my nails. Taking power mechanics in the middle of a school day is like gym. You walk in there, having just come from English or Latin and you are suddenly far removed from a regular classroom that it’s like you’re entering another world. And when you emerge and re-enter regular school and walk into Bio II or Algebra, you have to snap out of it. And you smell. It’s a lot of daily transitioning for someone going through the tail end of adolescence.

I was the only girl in my power mechanics class. I didn’t know a single guy in there, despite the fact that everyone knew pretty much everyone else in our school, and I was fairly friendly. It was Power Mechanics I out of at least III, so they were basically a bunch of freshman motor head boys. And me, nerdy class president, editor of the literary arts magazine, senior.

Our teacher was Mr. Guarneri, who was young and had a huge ‘70s mustache. He was amused at my being in the class. He often would look down his nose at me, smiling. I think he was surprised I continued to show up to the class. He didn’t know that as a Laney girl, I was not equipped to skip or drop classes.

We worked on lawn mower engines. Real car engines came in Power Mechanics II or III or at your job down at 3-D Service through DE. We were supposed to start by learning how a lawn mower engine works, apparently by absorbing large quantities of engine grease through our hands.

Mr. Guarneri taught us about all the individual parts of the lawn mower engine, how they worked, and how they all worked together to spin blades to get your lawn cut. Substitute blades with wheels and add a couple thousand other parts and fuzzy dice and you have a car.

I did very well in the class, because, again, as a Laney girl, I was genetically programmed to succeed in high school. If there had been an AP Power Mechanics class I probably would have dominated that and pushed up my GPA a little.

While we worked on our engines, which were bolted to wooden work tables, Mr. Guarneri would walk around and check on our work and tell us things about spark plugs and rotors. He often mentioned that the final for the class was to take apart the lawn mower engine, spread every single little bitty part around the work table, and then put it all back together again. All this had to be done during one class period. To pass the final, you had to start your engine.

I had an A in the class and was looking forward to acing the final - I knew my lawn mower engine so well, I was thinking of inviting it to my graduation party.

The day of my final, I rushed into the class and started tearing apart my engine as soon as I could. I got it all spread out, Mr. Guarneri came over and checked that yes, it was in a million pieces. I started putting it back together, things were going well, but time was a’tickin’ away. Just before the bell rang, I got it put back together, put in the oil, the gas or whatever, and yelled out to Mr. Guarneri, “I’m ready to start my engine!”

He and his clipboard and mustache came over to watch. I pulled on the cord and couldn’t get enough leverage because with the engine on a work table and me at under 5-foot 3-inches tall, I couldn’t pull a lawn mower engine cord up far enough. Mr. Guarneri got me a chair and I stood on it and pulled. I put my whole 110 pounds into it, my hair was swinging wildly, I was flailing to get that cord pulled hard enough.

“It’ll start,” I said to him. “I did it right. It’ll start.”

It didn’t start. Not because I had put it together incorrectly, not because I hadn’t learned enough about lawn mower engines, but because I was too much of a girl to yank that blasted cord hard enough. Mr. Guarneri let some skinny motor head freshman come over and with one spindly arm, he started my engine.

Oh, the humiliation.

I took my A and didn’t even say goodbye to that lawn mower engine, that ungrateful, sexist, car-engine-wannabe.

The justice here is that I took my power mechanics A, went to college, got a good job, eventually bought a car, which started almost every time I turned the key. Even a girl can do that.

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