St. Joseph’s class teaches auto basics

The high school girls gather around the sedan, their arms crossed as they look under the hood.

They aren’t broken down on the side of the road, but they could be. And this afternoon they’re learning some things that might get them out of such a jam.

The girls are in their fourth-period class at St. Joseph’s Academy, which is where they’re studying the basics of auto maintenance, starting with the oil.

“Oil protects the parts of the engine from friction,” says 17-year-old Ali Duplessis, her owner’s manual in her hand.

“It keeps it from burning up,” adds Kelsey Savoie, 18.

For more than two decades, the all-girls St. Joseph’s Academy has taught young women the basics of automobile maintenance. First, the lessons were included in a home economics course. Now, it’s part of a one-semester class called adult responsibility.

The girls learn how to check a car’s fluids, change tires and distinguish between 5W-30 motor oil and 10W-40.

“It’s just such a life skill,” says Nan Murtagh, who has taught the class for five years. “They may never have to know how to change a tire, but they know how to do it if it ever happens. … They know how to change their oil, and they know if they walk into a dealership or auto parts store, they can feel more comfortable.”

An elective open to seniors only, the class also covers personal finance, cooking at college and renting an apartment.

“They’re getting ready to go out, and they need to know how to check their bank statement on an (smartphone) app,” says Murtagh. “They need to know (how) to do these things on their own.”

Like how to read the oil level. Duplessis is teaching her classmates, first cleaning the dipstick with a paper towel, then putting it back.

“Why are you putting it in a second time?” Murtagh asks, quizzing her throughout the presentation.

“The car was moving, so the oil would be up to here,” Duplessis answers, pointing to the top of stick.

Each group researched a particular area of car maintenance, then created a glove-compartment ready packet of directions and tips for their classmates. They read online and asked their parents to show them the steps.

At first, some of the students are nervous about maintaining their own cars, Murtagh says, but they slowly realize they can handle it.

“As girls, we need to learn how to do things on our own,” says Madelynn Ellis, 17. “We can’t always call our dads. Or if we’re in a bind and we don’t have cell phone reception. It’s important.”

Getting familiar with the basics in an all-girl school creates an empowering atmosphere, says Murtagh.

“Here they believe they can do anything if they put their mind to it, and they can,” she says. “There’s not boys to take over. They have to do it. That’s how we are with everything around here. You are just as capable as anybody else who is able to do it.”

The crew tasked with changing a tire kneels on the pavement to find the jack point — that notch where the jack fits into the frame — on a Ford Escape SUV. Hannah Chustz, 18, scans the owner’s manual for the exact spot, which is on the axle.

“So you’re not just throwing the jack under there?” Murtagh asks.

“We had trouble figuring out how the jack works,” Chustz advises the class, “so you want to have that figured out before something happens.”

Demonstrating the technique on the smaller sedan, the team jacked it up quickly and began loosening the lug nuts on the wheel when Murtagh gives them a tip: Step on the lug wrench to loosen those tight lug nuts.

“You are strong girls, but you might not have the power to loosen that,” she says. “You’ve got to use your leg power.”

Chustz holds up one of the lug nuts.

“Make sure you don’t lose these. They’re sort of important. Just kidding,” she adds. “They’re very important.”

Before the class, Chustz says she had no clue how to change her own tire.

“I just always assumed it wouldn’t happen to me,” says Chustz. “Now I know it could happen to anyone. You just have to know and be prepared in advance.”