Ugh, we’re having parent-teacher conferences today, so we had shorter classes and the administration was running the bell schedule manually, but they messed it up every period. It was a disaster,” says Jack Cahn, 17, out of breath from power walking to meet me in the second-floor café of the Whole Foods in Tribeca, a few blocks from Stuyvesant High School, where he’s currently a senior. This time next year he’ll be in college, but for now he’s carrying on the tradition of precocious kids everywhere, convinced he knows more than the adults running the most competitive public high school in New York City. He’s about six feet tall and teenage handsome with an easy laugh, a smattering of forehead acne, pubescent stubble, and thick black hair that swoops up, Tintin style, in the front. I scramble to keep up as he briefs me on an endless stream of critically important high-school issues while casing the room in vain for a free table. “I have an idea,” Jack announces and plops down without asking at a four-top already occupied by a startled thirtysomething blond man, mid-bite into his sandwich.
Moments later, Jack’s identical twin brother, David, appears—same height, same exuberance, similar clothes, different build—so out of breath I ask if he ran here. “No, I’m a quick walker; it’s how I get from A to B,” David says, perplexed I’d ask, and launches into a story of how he was delayed by a “heated debate” at the end of class about a survey of the entire student body he’s helping conduct as co-editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, the Stuyvesant Spectator. “[A student-body-wide survey]’s been done, like, three times in the school’s history. No one does them,” says David, grinning. “It’s very controversial because I’m quantifying drug use, sex, cheating, and homework. Somehow, I got this past the administration.” This is very much a Cahn brothers special: Cause a ruckus, write about the ruckus, promote the ruckus, get outside media to cover the ruckus as if it’s a ruckus that deserves attention beyond Stuyvesant’s walls.
“We’re very in the controversy,” says David.
“We create it,” says Jack.
David and his fellow editors will eventually decide not to include the sex questions, but the effort adds another layer to the legend of the Cahn twins’ irrepressible pluck. Four years ago, when they felt they’d reached the academic ceiling of the Ramaz School, a private modern-Orthodox yeshiva on the Upper East Side, they decided to try testing into Stuyvesant, which has the highest cutoff score for the entrance exam of the city’s nine specialized public high schools. Their mission: Divide and conquer. And they’ve mostly conquered. Jack is in student government, David got the newspaper; plus, they’re a formidable debate team and passionate agitators for a variety of causes. They have A averages; study Mandarin (they also speak Hebrew and Spanish); have lobbied successfully to audit a class during their lunch period and audited several others at New York Law School on their own time; have held national positions with the Junior State of America; are Huffington Post columnists; were intern supervisors for Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney; and have started a business, Guerrilla Joe, selling ad space on the sides of coffee carts throughout the city. Last year, they even squeezed in time for girlfriends.
They’re incredibly easy to spot in the Stuyvesant hallways; the school has a largely Asian student population, and the Cahns are two of the only students among 3,300 who wear yarmulkes every day. They credit their notoriety, in part, to the “natural advantage of being ‘the Jewish twins,’ ” says David. “By the third day of school, I would say that we were probably the single-most-identifiable people in our entire grade of 800.” Two months into being at Stuy, they ran for president and vice-president of the freshman class—“The last time we’ll ever run together,” says Jack, because it negates the advantage of having a running mate with a different voter base. The election didn’t get them power, but it did make them known. Jack says they had more posters up in the school than all the other fifteen tickets combined. “Everybody saw our faces.”
More Stuy kids are streaming into Whole Foods, and Jack greets each he recognizes with a wave and a smile, until his phone rings. “This is Jack,” he answers, stepping away.
He comes back having just hired a kid to hand out flyers for Kweller Prep, an upstart test-prep agency for which he’s marketing director.
“It’s not for the money,” says Jack. “Like, what are we gonna do? Sit around?” They had two jobs each this summer; both want to go into business and get law degrees.