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Twin Titans of Stuyvesant High School

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David Cahn at a Model UN conference in 2012; right, the Stuyvesant Spectator, which David co-edits.  

I ask if they ever went to the beach. “Sure, the beach is sometimes fine, but I’d much rather be creating something and have something to show for it,” says Jack.

What about summer camp, did they ever do that? “We always disliked camp,” says Jack. “It’s too much, like, downtime.”

The clock strikes 2 p.m. They’re up with a bolt. They don’t mean to be rude, but it’s Friday, and they’ve only got four more hours before sunset to use their cell phones and computers and ride the subway before Sabbath starts. They grab their backpacks and power walk to the Whole Foods exit. Jack’s on his phone, David’s eating as he goes. Soon, all I can see is the long paper wrapper of a Fruit by the Foot snack trailing through the air behind them.

Ask any Stuyvesant faculty member about them and the response is usually “Oh, the Cahns,” with either a loving chuckle or an exasperated eye roll. “Everybody knows them. They’re aggressive guys who get stuff done,” says a Stuy junior I randomly stopped outside school, and at least two thirds of the students I surveyed knew who they were. “They’ve basically organized every protest for the last two years,” says Eric Zhao, another junior. “A lot of kids are not calling attention to themselves in this way or taking such public, dramatic stances,” says a teacher. “Maybe they mutually reinforce each other’s sense of righteous indignation.” They seem to be the kind of alpha overachievers who irk other overachievers. “Yeah, they’re annoying,” says another student.

The Cahns aren’t known just at Stuyvesant, though; they’ve become the school’s de facto representatives to the outside world, to the consternation of many (students, parents, teachers, administrators) who’ve felt burned by the constant press coverage the school’s received in the wake of a 2012 cheating scandal that implicated 66 students for receiving test answers via their smartphones, made the national news, and was linked to the abrupt retirement of then-principal Stanley Teitel. David’s been more recently quoted in the New York Post in an article about how the cheating debacle has affected the school’s standing. But Jack was the first Cahn to break into the popular imagination, with bloggers and Internet commenters comparing him to Election’s Tracy Flick, when at the end of the last school year his fight to be Stuyvesant Student Union president—a fight he ultimately lost—reached the pages of the New York Times.

In that election, Jack won the popular vote but was disqualified for campaign violations, like having too many posters and slandering his opponent on Facebook—all of which he disputed—by the student-run Board of Elections, which he says was stacked with friends of his opponent. He’s still in the Student Union, having reluctantly accepted a position as co-CFO instead. But this summer, from what his mother tells me, was a difficult one for him in the wake of that loss.

“You have to remember they’re still kids and they’re a work-in-progress, even if they don’t always remember,” says Dina, their mother and a social worker for the city’s Department of Education. “They’re 17, but they think they’re 40.” She’s biked to meet me and the twins after their Mandarin SAT Subject Test, and she’s with their younger brother, Daniel, 14, a freshman at the Ramaz School, who seems more mellow than his brothers (the entire time he’s with us, he never takes off his bike helmet). The twins are crammed onto a bench in a Tribeca coffee shop. David’s furiously writing Chinese characters in a notebook, and Jack’s staring at a computer screen. “I’m running code,” says Jack. “He’s failing to run code,” says David.

“David, I hate to sound like a Jewish mother, but where’s your jacket?” says Dina.

David tosses on a hooded sweatshirt he usually has wedged messily between his shoulder and the strap of his overstuffed backpack. Both twins constantly carry every one of their schoolbooks on their backs because neither has a locker. At the start of the year, they’d gotten caught up leading a protest—complete with a megaphone, signs, and 50 other kids—over what they believed was the unfair ousting of assistant principal of organization Randi Damesek, as fallout from the cheating scandal. Jack forgot to hand in his locker paperwork. David got such a “terrible” locker assignment that he refused to pay the $10-a-year fee to rent it.

Privilege and abuse of money and power come up a lot in conversation with the twins, who consider themselves decidedly middle class. Jack describes their father, Jerry, as a “serial entrepreneur; he’s basically come up with a new business idea every year since we were born, some more successful than others.” Jerry also runs two management consultancies and is an adjunct business professor at Baruch College. “He teaches two night classes and two day classes and works during the day. So you can see where we got it from,” says Jack. “Our dad is, like, our key inspiration.”


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