Fairfax County Auto Tech Instructors Share a Love of Teaching

Their fine-tuned friendship was geared for success. When sophomore Dominic Prakash and freshman David Plum became friends during auto mechanics classes at Reston’s South Lakes High School 40 years ago, they had no inkling of what the future held. But today, the two are still side by side, teaching auto technology in adjoining classrooms at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke.

“Nobody would have looked at the two of us in high school and put us together,” Prakash says.

Back in those early days, both boys exhibited an aptitude and interest in mechanics, though each learned in his own way. Prakash was identified as a gifted student. Plum has dyslexia.

“My strength is in the shop — I like being hands-on,” Plum says. “That’s how I was, and the majority of my students are going to learn doing it, not reading about it.”

Prakash agrees that kids learn from hands-on experience. “I think we both thrive on our curiosity of how things work and our natural mechanical ability,” he says. “We complement each other, ever since high school.”

Extended Warranty Friendship

Prakash and Plum began their working careers together at a side job washing dishes at Fantastic Fritzbe’s Flying Food Factory in Reston, which was part of the Great American Restaurants chain in its early days. Prakash then graduated in 1985, eventually becoming a mechanic at JKJ Chevrolet in Tysons. When Plum graduated the following year, he started work as an auto mechanic at Fox Mill Exxon in Herndon. That stint would be brief, however, as Plum soon jumped ship to join Prakash.

“We followed each other from restaurants to car dealers,” Plum says. 

And so it went. The two worked together over the years, moving from dealership to dealership.

“We’ve been apart a couple times, but it doesn’t usually last,” Prakash says.

A radical move did come during the mid-1990s, when Plum caught wind of an auto technology teaching job with Fairfax County Public Schools. Plum was enticed by the benefits alone.

“My father said, ‘It’s a one-year contract; if you go and you don’t like it, you’re out the next year,’” Plum recalls. “That was 27 years ago.” 

Plum began teaching at Lake Braddock at the beginning of the 1996 school year. Never far, Prakash helped him create worksheets and lesson plans after work. Plum also recruited Prakash to drive an electric car his students built for a competition, an event that opened Prakash’s eyes to teaching and being around high schoolers. 

“I liked working with the kids,” Prakash says. “It had some appeal.”

As luck would have it, ahead of the 1999 school year, another auto tech teacher at Plum’s school retired. The job opening grabbed Prakash’s attention. Prakash and Plum were once again reunited, this time in an auto tech classroom.

Prakash, left, and Plum pose with a class in 2006. Photo courtesy Dominic Prakash

Shifting Gears

“We work side by side — literally,” Prakash says. “I can throw things at him, and he can throw things at me anytime he wants.”

The duo has now taught in classrooms connected to the auto shop for 23 years, earning a stellar reputation among staff and students in the process. 

“They really strengthen each other,” Lake Braddock Principal Lindsey Kearns says. “It’s definitely always a delight to go down there and interact and see what’s going on in their classroom.”

These days, Prakash teaches Auto Tech I, while the two friends rotate between Auto Tech II and III instruction, depending on enrollment. Surrounded by old cars on lifts, coveralls-clad students in safety goggles can’t help but notice how close the two teachers are during classroom interactions.

“You can tell they’ve known each other a really long time,” says senior Wesley Carlson. The 17-year-old enrolled in Plum’s Auto Tech III class and hopes to study automotive technology at Penn State. “Their classes are more than just working on cars — it’s also a lot of really great life lessons they teach you. This has been my favorite class in all of high school.”

Echoing that sentiment, class of 2005 graduate Sean Bean called the duo’s profound impact “the highlight” of his academic career. 

“My junior and senior year, I would have the [auto tech] class every day,” says Bean. “I looked forward to going to school every day for that class.” 

Bean took classes from Prakash and Plum for three years. After graduation and a subsequent associate degree from Northern Virginia Community College, he earned an internship with Fairfax Water. He’s been employed there for 17 years now and currently serves as the fleet supervisor overseeing 500 pieces of on- and off-road equipment. Bean still credits his experience in classes with Prakash and Plum as a strong foundation for his career.

“They were mentors,” he says. “I definitely looked up to them a lot and learned a lot from them.” 

Photo courtesy Dominic Prakash

Driven to Success

Maria Trester McCall first realized that having some automotive knowledge could be of use when she got a flat tire during the summer after her junior year. The incoming senior decided to enroll in Prakash’s automotive tech class as a result.

“It ended up being so much more,” she says. When McCall’s 1983 Pontiac Firebird started experiencing problems, Prakash told her to bring it to school so he could show her how to fix it. With the guidance of Plum and Prakash, McCall rebuilt her car’s transmission.

“They told me what I needed to do and helped me pull the transmission out,” she says. “I did all the labor and got it running again. It was a great sense of accomplishment.”

McCall went on to major in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and credits Prakash with fostering her academic interests. She eventually applied her skills to her career at the New York–based Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory.

Photo courtesy Fairfax County Public Schools

Putting the Teaching Pedal to the Metal

Today, the Lake Braddock teaching duo credits their well-oiled friendship with establishing the school’s robust auto tech program.

“We don’t argue; we don’t fight,” Plum says. “We have very similar mindsets on how things should be done and the approach we have.”

With major demand for automotive technicians, the longtime friends say they can’t train future mechanics fast enough. Students can earn Automotive Service Excellence certifications through their classes, enabling employment in actual mechanic shops. To that end, Prakash and Plum employ a unique “no coddling” teaching style that resonates with teens. 

“It’s called Real World 101,” Prakash says. “Our students tell us, ‘You talk to us and treat us like no one else does.’” 

The men say they offer guidance, but students must take initiative with a hands-on approach to learning. Based on his own life experience, Plum connects with youth who find a traditional school setting challenging. This field, he says, is a viable and lucrative career path students may not be aware of. 

“I have better strengths with working with kids that don’t want to be in school or are struggling to stay,” Plum says.

Just as they did when the duo began teaching, pupils today rave about Prakash and Plum. Students say they bring a sense of empowerment to learning many practical skills, while infusing humor and fun into their lessons. And their high-mileage, 40-year friendship inspires.

“I think they’ll always be friends,” says freshman Andrew Downey.

“Till death do them part,” adds sophomore Oliver Crandol.

This story originally ran in our March issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to Northern Virginia Magazine.


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