The drama that came with my “unusual” interest

By Kristen Finley
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Kristen Finley in 2012 changing the wheel bearings on her first car, a 1986 F150. Photo by David Finley.

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I was always emotionally attached to cars. I cried as a kid when we sold our Buick Century. My nightmares usually involved my parents selling or destroying our roundup of jalopies. I felt genuine sadness for cars that were left on the side of the road and slowly rusted into the ground. Each car had a personality, a face and a voice if you were apt enough to hear it. There was (and to me, still is) no such thing as a car without a soul. Ever since I could remember, all I wanted to do was be around and “help” cars.

I never liked My Little Ponies. I liked Hot Wheels and sharks, even bugs, and I hated wearing pink, especially when it was on a dress. When my dad was home on Sundays, I loved sitting on his good knee and watch rally races with him (this is where my obsession with Subaru began). During the summer, my dad was always underneath a car. Since I loved him as much as I loved our cars and I wasn’t in school, I was out there with him regularly, pointing at things and asking what this or that does while handing him tools.

Then I started going to school, and this is where it began. This is where I was taught to feel insecure about my love for cars.

My liking cars, sharks and bugs made me weird to students and teachers. My interests made me “unusual.” My hatred for pink, dolls and dresses made me a freak – as I was affectionately called. Even though my friend was allowed to bring her Bratz doll to class and have it on her desk, I was told to put my Hot Wheels away. After all, they were “distracting.” Any time I mentioned watching races with my dad or helping him fix the family truck during sharing time, I was called a liar by the male students in my class and I was heavily questioned by the teacher. My dad told me to ignore it. After all, I’ll save a lot of money knowing what I know and they’ll pay $500 for a job that would only cost $30 to a person like me.

Then came high school. I took auto tech, since my hormone-fueled anger was always silenced in that class. This is where I was taught that my gender would make me less capable.

According to the boys in class, there was no way I knew how to change my own tire. Boys were constantly trying to trick me into thinking an alternator was actually a flux capacitor. I could never work in peace – boys surrounded me when I was working, “making sure” I was using the right tools or that I knew what I was doing. Just because they didn’t want me, as said by them, “breaking a nail or anything.”

I’ll never forget the teacher asking me to back a manual BMW off of the alignment rack. The second I started the car, six boys ran up to the car, pried the door open like they were defusing a bomb and told me to get out – they looked me dead in the eyes and said, “What are you doing? You don’t know how to drive stick.” Didn’t even ask me if I did – they stared at me, hard and told me to get out so they could do it. I shut the door with his fingers still on the frame and told him to buzz off. I was never able to shake the uneasiness I felt; these were 15-year-old boys who felt so territorial about cars and the culture behind it, that they tried to push me out with sexism and harassment. Without question, without investigation and without willingness to believe that I could do it or was just as capable. Not even grown men, but children.

During my senior year, then in advanced auto class, I was all set up to go work for the local Ford dealership as an apprentice upon graduation. I was excited, I was going to learn from the pros. My skills would finally be made valid. I’d have something to prove to the non-believers my passion was real and not a cry for attention. One Monday morning, I was opening up the bay doors to get a car on the alignment rack, as requested by the teacher, and I was cornered like a predator does to prey by a group of three girls and one guy. When no one was around, they asked me if I was sleeping with the teacher in order to get my pending job and my A. Otherwise, it “didn’t make sense” to them. I didn’t deserve it.

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I backed out of the Ford program that day. I’d finally had enough. I stopped putting so much effort into my automotive work. I stopped raising my hand during class, since the group in the back always snickered and accused me of doing this to impress the guys in the class or the teacher. I was called a kiss-ass, a fake, a wannabe. If I stood up for myself and my passion, I was a bitch. I couldn’t take a joke. Or my personal favorite, I was rude because I was on my period.

All because I loved cars.

And according to one of the boys in the class (who always reeked of vodka), I would never be a real mechanic. After all, women just can’t do it – we’re just not strong enough.

Then came the online sexual harassment.

I was constantly asked to pose in front of cars nude. Asked to send nudes. Told that my being into cars was sexy or being a girl that’s into cars meant I only posed with cars – and when the anonymous messenger found out that I don’t pose, I just like to work on cars, I was clickbait. I was using cars as a way to get attention. I wasn’t actually a mechanic, I was taking credit for my boyfriend’s work (even though I didn’t have one). When I told them that it wasn’t true, I was a liar. A whore. Or I didn’t have a boyfriend because I was into women. Even though I’m now engaged, it didn’t change the flow of hateful messages. A cookie-cutter message I often got was something along the lines of, “go back to posting selfies, you’ll get more followers that way. No one likes a fake.”

While I regret letting people’s nonsense keep me from chasing my dream of being a professional mechanic, I don’t regret where it lead me. Back in those days, I had no desire to go to college. Now, I’m at California State University, Monterey Bay chasing an automotive dream. It taught me to stand tall and to not allow toxic men from chasing my dreams. Growing up as a woman presented a unique and horrifying set of challenges, but no matter what anyone said to (or will ever say to me), nothing will ever squelch my love of cars.

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