The electric-car competition was the kind of project that could change a student’s life, could give a kid a reason to care about ingenuity and perseverance and a true mastery of difficult subjects—the physics of friction and motion, the chemistry of energy, the principles of aerodynamics and acceleration, and the fundamentals of amps and watts and electromagnetism. It would break across traditional school boundaries, combining resources and talent, science classes and vocational-technical, the kids who were good with their hands and the ones accustomed to working just with their heads, as a team, to learn from and appreciate each others’ knowledge and abilities. It would make the students look beyond the world of northeast North Carolina, to understand the science of air pollution or the politics of transportation. And it would be fun.

If they could build an electric car, and if they could get it to run, and if they could get it to Richmond, go up against schools from across the region, these students might have a shot at showing talents too often overlooked and under recognized by bar charts and computer printouts. They would have an experience and an accomplishment they could point to, something real and tangible they could take pride in, one that wouldn’t pronounce them a success or failure based on a percentile calculated in some faraway testing-service headquarters. And how might that resonate in all their lives?

But looking around his classroom a few days later, Mr. Miller sensed a degree of skepticism among the members of his audience, the collective enrollment of Auto Tech I. In his students’ faces, Harold read a nearly unanimous consensus of “Huh?”

Jennifer Robbins, for one, was not at all sure she liked what she was hearing.

Honey-blonde and vivacious, Jennifer had the good looks and warm personality that would win her the Homecoming queen’s crown in her senior year. But you wouldn’t want to make the mistake of writing her off as some pretty bubblehead. She was smart and driven, and she didn’t believe in doing things halfway; if you weren’t going to give one-hundred-percent-plus effort, the way Jennifer saw it you might just as well stay home. When it came to Jennifer’s expectations for Jennifer, a hundred-and-fifty percent was more like it. Her schedule was loaded up with hard-core college prep classes in this, her all-important junior year, the year for laying down the grades the admissions committees would be scrutinizing most closely in the coming fall.

Jennifer wasn’t the kind of girl, therefore, that you’d expect to find enrolled in Auto Tech I. But the high school had just switched that year to a new schedule that left Jennifer with one free period needing to be filled, and with nothing else academic available to cram in, she’d committed that period to Auto Tech I. Jennifer had never been afraid to shove up her shirtsleeves and mix it up with some hard work and grime; she was here in Mr. Miller’s class hoping to fully equip herself to take the firm upper hand in daily negotiations with the Rustang, her fulsomely oxidized ‘86 Ford Mustang. She was here to learn how to change her oil and adjust the timing, speak with authority on overhead cams, diagnose trouble in the exhaust manifold.

But now Mr. Miller had just told the class they would be spending the year building an electric vehicle. An electric vehicle was not in Jennifer’s plan. Jennifer wanted to say (though she wouldn’t, of course, because she’d been raised right not to speak disrespectfully to her elders), “Hey wait a minute.” Jennifer wanted to ask, “How is this going to relate to my car?”

“Y’all pass this around,” said Mr. Miller, holding up a picture that looked as though it might have come from a magazine ad or a brochure. “This here’s an electric vehicle GM is developing. They’re calling it the Impact.”

The picture moved from hand to hand around the classroom, each student holding it and scrutinizing it uncertainly.

It looked like a car, but not like one anyone had ever seen on a road in Northampton County. It was sleek and streamlined and futuristic. Batman would drive it for those times when the Batmobile was too conspicuous, maybe. You couldn’t really imagine running over to Ralph’s for some takeout barbecue and hush-puppies in a car like that.

“Does Mr. Miller expect us to build that?” Jennifer wondered.